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In conversation with Garrick Ohlsson

Category: News & Views: International Concert Season

© Dario Acosta

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.’

Chopin Etude Op.10,No.1 performed by Garrick Ohlsson in 1970.

Ohlsson’s point of view was partially informed by a love of nature he connected to his Swedish father’s affection for the outdoors, the sailing and hiking they did together. A juror at the 1966 Busoni International Piano competition—which Ohlsson had won four years earlier—had remarked; ‘When Ohlsson plays you want to open the windows and let the fresh air in.’

This sense of openness and freshness infused his style, and he won the Chopin competition. He was the first and only American to ever do so, and was soon given the ‘tremendous boost and responsibility’ of bringing his plein air style to the world’s best concert halls, which he’s now done to phenomenal acclaim for fifty years.

Ohlsson is known for his vast repertoire, but Frédéric Chopin has remained his close companion all his musical life.  This relationship is a constant balancing act: ‘Chopin without a classical foundation, without clear structure, without balance and an understanding of what he’s doing musically becomes all magic, perfume, smoke and mirrors,’ Ohlsson has claimed. ‘It’s really gorgeous, but it’s kind of sickening after a while. However, Chopin played only as a classicist without the magic and the moonlight is worthless.’ As a pianist, Chopin captivated his contemporaries, but the mystery of his style, how radical or how conservative he was as a performer, is one Ohlsson has accepted he can never solve.

If time travel were possible, Ohlsson is not sure he and Chopin would actually get along. ‘He was a royalist, he liked money and the finer things in life. I’m more middle class.’ Highlighting this odd couple angle, Ohlsson points out their contrasting physiques. The composer was frail and consumptive, whereas, as the 6 foot 4 inch pianist, who is famed for his great hand span, puts it, ‘I’m a large event.’ Still, Ohlsson knows he would have enjoyed, ‘the finesse of Chopin’s brilliant, sharp mind, the intolerance of mediocrity. He didn’t suffer fools. Read his letters.’ Ohlsson paraphrases a withering line the composer wrote home during his British visit of 1848; ‘These English ladies look at their hands and play wrong notes with much feeling…You’ve got to love a snob like that.’

Book tickets for Garrick Ohlsson's upcoming Australian tour here, and listen to our curated playlist below.

About the author

Chloe Hooper is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. Her latest book is The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire.