When Garrick Ohlsson was eight, his mother enrolled him in piano lessons at the Music Conservatory of Westchester in White Plains, New York. If her son didn’t take to the instrument it was agreed she could replace him and receive the half-year of lessons herself. Mrs Ohlsson never stood a chance. Her son began playing in September, and by Christmas he was the star of the school’s annual concert.
Long regarded as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Frédéric Chopin, Ohlsson’s first real introduction to the Polish composer arrived when, as a nine-year-old, he was driven into Manhattan to hear the great Arthur Rubinstein perform a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Rubinstein’s full-bodied sound thrilled him and became the young pianist’s model. When, to close the concert, Rubinstein played the Ballade no 1 in G minor, Ohlsson thought the first theme was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard, until he heard the second theme, then the magnificent coda. Unlike today’s audiences who—take note please—Ohlsson notices are applauding while rushing to get to the car park, that night ‘people didn’t seem to go home.’ Rubinstein gave eight encores, and to Ohlsson a sense of what it would be like to give joy to so many people. The enchantment ‘seemed communal. Rubinstein was feeding off the audience’s excitement and providing more back. It was a life-changing experience.’
Under Chopin’s star, Ohlsson’s life pivoted again in 1970. As a 22-year-old, he arrived in Warsaw to compete in the illustrious International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition.
Coming from the prosperous suburbs of East Coast America, life in Poland was a shock. ‘There was the Cold War fear of being followed and having one’s phone tapped. Things didn’t work. Shops didn’t have food. The waiter in the hotel restaurant would announce: “Of the fifteen dishes on the menu there is only chicken. What would you like tonight?”’ But the experience, Ohlsson claims in his mellifluous voice, ‘added an emotional level to me.’ In the midst of the material deprivation, he discovered the depth and richness of people’s connection to culture. He’d be stopped in the street to discuss, say, the historical intricacies of different Chopin interpreters’ left-hand fingering. In a repressed society, the composer represented the community’s most romantic aspirations.
As a student at the Julliard School, Ohlsson had also learnt his teachers were ‘almost particularly possessive’ regarding Chopin, ‘a poet of the heart, of individuality in the heart.’ This was music, which ‘responds to personal input. Chopin without a personal point of view is nothing much.’