Ohlsson Talks Chopin – Q&A with Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Garrick Ohlsson, piano

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes acclaimed pianist Garrick Ohlsson back to Jones Hall for performances of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Recently, I got to ask Garrick a few questions about what it’s like to play this masterpiece. The following has been transcribed and edited from a phone interview.

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 to someone who has never heard it before? What is the relationship between the soloist and orchestra?

Garrick Ohlsson: It’s a soliloquy for piano solo with an accompaniment that’s mostly in the background. Chopin was not interested in the orchestra at all. He used these pieces as virtuoso calling cards to introduce himself to the capitals of Europe. He was not interested in symphonic music or its development. The better the conductor and the orchestra do their job, the less they’ll be noticed, in a paradoxical way. It’s really a solo piece for the soloist.

I think the thing to remember about Chopin’s writing at the time—he was twenty years old in 1830 when he wrote this—is that he was a very progressive, modern composer at the time; his music was wildly chromatic, even heavily dissonant. Now we find it dreamy, but at the time, it was as modern as you could get. The figurations are incredibly more elaborate than, say, in a concerto by Beethoven. The other great thing is all the melodies. The tunes are just incredibly gorgeous, and especially in the second movement, which is a beautiful nocturne.

Chopin, age 25

Chopin, age 25

CD: What do you love about this piece?

GO: Well, I love…actually, I think I mostly love the melodic inspiration and the special Romantic, moonlit tenderness of the nocturne. The finale is very, very joyful in a Mozartian way, full of tunes and with spirit, too. The first movement has glorious melodic inspiration combined with very elaborate pianistic display.

CD: I understand that this concerto and Chopin’s music in general have had a very special role in your career.

GO: Yes, a decisive role. I first came to prominence in the musical world in 1970 when I won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which is a very big deal in the musical world, and it really put my name on the front page of the world’s major newspapers. So in a way, this competition and Chopin’s music really were the decisive turning point in my having a career. It’s very hard to develop a career as a young artist, and this really gave me a leg up. It gave me my first step everywhere, and Chopin’s music has been with me my whole life. Most pianists love Chopin and have this close relationship with him. I’ve played so much Chopin. In fact I’ve recorded it all – and it’s available on the English label Hyperion as a 16 or 17 CD set. I’ve played lots and lots of Chopin! It’s always been with me. As a matter of fact, when I made my debut with the Houston Symphony in 1973, it was with this piece.

CD: Do you have any favorite passages in this concerto that you would like to highlight for the audience?

GO: Yes, I think the great movement in this piece is the second movement, the slow movement, and I think particularly beautiful is the coda, the end of it, where the orchestra actually gets to sing the tune and the piano decorates it with the most exquisite filigree. There are so many moments that I love in it, but I think I would single out the second movement in general.

Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Garrick Ohlsson, piano

CD: What do you like to do when you’re not practicing or performing?

GO: Or not taking airlines! Let’s see. I’m just quite a very average person that way. I like to ride my bike in the park; I like to take walks; I like the theater; I like good films. I like to cook (I’m not a very good cook—but I’m really not so bad), and I read. I’m just pretty unexceptional in those ways.

CD: Are there any films or books that you’ve particularly liked lately?

GO: Yes, right now I’m on kind of a kick reading virtually all of Philip Roth—I’ve sort of rediscovered him. I read Portnoy’s Complaint back when I was a teenager, and I didn’t read any more of him until this last year. I started with The Human Stain, which I think is just incredibly brilliant, as all of his books are, so I’m on a real Philip Roth kick right now. I’m a science fiction fan, too, but I won’t mention too many names. For film, I like all sorts of things. I tend to like gloomy, sort of existentially desperate things like Bergman, but I like a wide range.

CD: Thank you so much. Best of luck with Beethoven in Dallas, and I can’t wait to hear you perform.

GO: Thank you, I’m looking forward to being in Houston next week.

Don’t miss Garrick Ohlsson with the Houston Symphony!

Ohlsson Plays Chopin
April 17, 18, 19, 2015
Robert Spano, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

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Jennifer Higdon Comes to Houston

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon’s path to a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy began with a pawn-shop flute . And she didn’t even pick that up until she was 15 years old.

“It’s kind of stunning to think about the trajectory. I got a very late start,” Higdon says.

Higdon will come to Jones Hall April 17-19, when Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony’s music director and a longtime champion of Higdon’s music, conducts the Houston Symphony in two works that helped launch her career. The eloquent blue cathedral, composed in 2000, is a musical journey inspired by her younger brother’s death from cancer; the League of American Orchestras has said it’s the most-performed orchestral piece written in the past 25 years. Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2002, celebrates the virtuosity of that group and of any orchestra that masters this sonic showpiece.

Q. What led you to try playing that flute?

A. It was lying around the house. My mom had gotten the flute at a pawn shop, and the most elementary band (instruction) book you could have. But I don’t remember her playing. For the life of me, I don’t know what compelled me to pick it up. I must have felt some connection to music.

I loved the feel of the instrument and the sound of the music. I didn’t really know any classical music. The big thing in my high school was marching band – we didn’t have an orchestra. Somewhere inside of me, I must have recognized the power of music and been attracted to that.

Q. And that was enough to make you major in music in college?

A. At the time, I was thinking I’d like to be a pro flute player. I thought of maybe a job in a symphony orchestra. Maybe it’s good that I was clueless as to what that entails. If I had known, I might not have started down this path!

Q. What made you go from playing music to creating it?

A. I got interested in composing about halfway through college (at Bowling Green State University). We had someone coming to do a flute master class. Usually, the teacher assigns you to play a piece, and the person doing the master class comments on that. But this time, my flute teacher said to me, “I want you to write a piece.” I should ask her why! I must have said something that suggested I was interested in it.

Q. What did you compose?

A. It was a simple little two-minute piece for flute and piano. I thought composing it was fun. I don’t know if it was arranging the sounds that I liked – I’m not really sure what it was – but I thought it was completely cool. So I kept doing it. I wrote for my friends, for flute choir, for flute duet.

Conductor Robert Spano

Conductor Robert Spano

Q. Meanwhile, the orchestra at your school got a new director: Robert Spano, who would go on to champion your music. Did you have any inkling that big things were in store?

A. I think he was only like 23 when he took that job. It was his first job out of school. I still remember his audition – I was in the room when he got up in front of the orchestra. It was kind of startling how good he was.

I remember that after he started at Bowling Green, both of us applied to study at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony’s summer festival and school), him as a conductor and me as a composer. And neither of us got in!

Q. But you did get into the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for graduate work. When did you decide to shoot for becoming a composer?

A. In the last year and a half of my undergraduate, my brain started making the switch. I loved playing the flute, but the world of the composer was a much bigger world. It was at Curtis that I finally switched over from flute to composing.

Q. Curtis later commissioned blue cathedral. Were you thinking of your brother from the outset?

A. It was about a year after I lost my brother. So I was still in that intense grieving period. The combination of the emotions and the things I was thinking about – it just kind of showed up on the paper. I did a lot of chamber pieces and choral works during that time, and you can tell that something had happened in my life. They have a certain intensity to them.

I had a feeling the piece would be important for me, but I didn’t know how. It gets played somewhere every weekend, amazingly.

Jennifer Higdon at work composing.

Jennifer Higdon at work composing.

Q. And your Concerto for Orchestra also has personal meanings, in a way?

A. The Philadelphia Orchestra asked specifically for something that would highlight the players (many of whom teach at Curtis, where she met them). So I thought a lot about the people. To me, music is about people – it’s about making a connection. I thought about Jeffrey Khaner, the principal flute, and how beautiful his sound is up high. That’s why the flute line goes so high. The oboe line runs the entire range of the instrument. It’s very much like Richard Woodhams, the principal oboe. He has great tone – kind of regal.

The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it during a League of American Orchestra conference. That performance changed my life overnight, literally. People (from across the United States) had come to the conference to hear the orchestra’s new concert hall. Nobody had any idea who I was.

Amazingly, the piece went off great. I remember walking out on the stage, and the entire audience went up on its feet. It was an overwhelming experience. The phone started ringing the next day, and commissions started coming in. And they haven’t stopped since.

(Question and answers have been edited)

steven_brown_150x150Steven Brown
Steven Brown is a Houston writer specializing in classical music and the arts. He has been the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle,Charlotte Observer (N.C.) and Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

 

Don’t miss Jennifer Higdon with the Houston Symphony! Hear from Jennifer herself at our Prelude pre-concert talks April 17, 18 and 19!

Ohlsson Plays Chopin
April 17, 18, 19, 2015
Robert Spano, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

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Discover the Secrets of Verdi’s Requiem

Verdi in 1876, two years after the premiere of his Requiem.

Verdi in 1876, two years after the premiere of his Requiem.

Here’s a riddle for you: Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, one of the most beloved of all choral works, came from a composer who wanted nothing to do with God or organized religion. Why would he write a massive sacred work? How could the result be so eloquent?

Let’s let Verdi and those near him tell the story.

You’re all mad!”

In 1872, the year before Verdi began working in earnest on the Requiem, his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, wrote to one of their friends about her husband. She thought his talent came from God, but he scoffed. “Everyone agrees in saying that there fell to his lot the divine gift of genius,” Strepponi wrote. “He is a jewel among honest men; he understands and feels every delicate and elevated sentiment. And yet this pirate permits himself to be, I won’t say an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer, and that with an obstinacy and calm that make one want to beat him. I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc., etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face, and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying: ‘You’re all mad!’”

Giuseppina Strepponi was an acclaimed soprano who became Verdi's second wife.

Giuseppina Strepponi was an acclaimed soprano who became Verdi’s second wife.

The glory of Italy”

When Strepponi sent off that lament, the idea of writing a Requiem already lurked in Verdi’s mind. In 1868, he had mourned the death of his operatic forebear Gioacchino Rossini, celebrated creator of “The Barber of Seville” and “William Tell.” Verdi wrote a friend: “A great name has gone from the world! His was the most widespread, most popular reputation of our time, and the glory of Italy!” Verdi spearheaded a plan for himself and other leading composers to create a Requiem in Rossini’s honor, with each contributing a section. The collaborators went to work, and the Requiem’s climactic plea for deliverance from death, “Libera me,” came from Verdi. But the performance was called off; the musical memorial had to wait until 1988 for its premiere.

I am not fond of useless things”

A musician who helped organize the Rossini project, Alberto Mazzucato, studied Verdi’s “Libera me” and extolled it in a letter to its composer: “You have written the greatest, most beautiful and most immensely poetic pages imaginable,” Mazzucato wrote. Verdi replied, “Such is a composer’s ambition, your words arouse in me the desire, one day, to write the entire Mass. … But stay calm: It’s a temptation that will pass, like many others. I am not fond of useless things. There are so many, many, many Masses for the Dead. It would be pointless to add one more.”

Alessandro Manzoni, the author whose death inspired Verdi's Requiem.

Alessandro Manzoni, the author whose death inspired Verdi’s Requiem.

A model of virtue and patriotism”

The death of novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni in 1873 changed Verdi’s mind. As 19th-century Italy struggled to become a unified country rather than a cluster of unruly states, Manzoni was an icon. His magnum opus, the epic novel “The Betrothed,” not only symbolized Italy’s yearning for nationhood, but it helped forge a single Italian language transcending the babel of dialects that had existed for centuries. Immediately after Manzoni’s death, Verdi revealed his plan to write a memorial Requiem. He was driven, he wrote, by “a need from my heart to honor, as best as I could, this great man whom I held in such esteem as a writer, and venerated as a man, and as a model of virtue and patriotism.”

One of the original posters for the La Scala premiere of Verdi's Requiem.

One of the original posters for the La Scala premiere of Verdi’s Requiem.

True poets, true painters, true composers”

The “Libera me” from Verdi’s Rossini tribute helped supply the raw material for a 90-minute Requiem bursting with melody, soulfulness and drama. Verdi’s music brings out the Latin text’s human meaning – the universal hunger for serenity and deliverance from troubles. Audiences have loved the work ever since its premiere. Its impact on listeners regardless of their faith shows that Verdi lived up to a goal he described in a tribute to Manzoni’s “The Betrothed.” “This book is true, as true as truth itself,” Verdi wrote. “If only artists could grasp this idea of truth! There would no longer be futuristic and backward-looking musicians; no more impressionism, realism, or idealism in painting; neither classic nor romantic poets; but only true poets, true painters, true composers.”

 

steven_brown_150x150Steven Brown
Steven Brown is a Houston writer specializing in classical music and the arts. He has been the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle,Charlotte Observer (N.C.) and Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

 

Don’t miss Verdi’s Requiem this weekend!

Verdi’s Requiem
March 20, 21, 22, 2015
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
, conductor
Amber Wagner, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Francesco Demuro, tenor
Alfred Walker, bass-baritone
Houston Symphony Chorus
     Betsy Cook Weber, director

Buy tickets now!

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Q&A with Lise de la Salle

Lise de la Salle, piano

Lise de la Salle, piano

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes acclaimed pianist Lise de la Salle to Jones Hall for performances of Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2. Recently, I got to ask Lise a few questions about what it’s like to play this masterpiece.

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 to someone who has never heard it before?

Lise de la Salle: I would say that it’s a beautiful piece that’s very heavily influenced by Bach. The first movement starts very dramatically and seriously, but it includes very beautiful, lyrical melodies. The second movement has a very light and sunny character with lots of humor. Then the finale is this crazy excitement; it’s a very diverse concerto.

CD: What do you love about this piece?

LDLS: It’s very fun to play – it has all this joy, excitement and humor! Also, it’s very beautiful and widely accessible. I know that for some pieces, it’s the musicians who are playing it that enjoy the piece the most, and the audience might not find it so accessible. One of the great qualities of this piece is that I think it’s something that the audience will enjoy if you’re not too familiar with it, or even if it’s your first time hearing it. I love that this piece is like that, because I think it’s really important to maintain accessibility with the audience in classical music.

CD: How is Saint-Saëns’ piano music different from other composers’ piano music? What makes his way of writing for the piano unique?

"One of the great qualities of this piece is that I think it’s something that the audience will enjoy if you’re not too familiar with it, or even if it’s your first time hearing it."

“One of the great qualities of this piece is that I think it’s something that the audience will enjoy if you’re not too familiar with it, or even if it’s your first time hearing it.”

LDLS: I do feel that his way of writing music is really, very clear and easy to understand as a musician – it’s not like you need thousands of hours to understand where each voice is going and how he’s using it. To me, his writing is in a very classic way, because it makes sense immediately. That’s one of the greatest qualities I find in his music: it’s simple, easy and clear. Not in a negative way, of course, but in a positive way.

CD: As you mentioned earlier, many listeners hear the influence of Bach in the opening of this concerto. How does this musical reference to Bach’s style affect your interpretation and what do you think Saint-Saëns meant by it?

LDLS: I think the opening is like a choral by Bach, that’s very obvious to me. I don’t really know what he meant or why he did that, but it reminded me of the organ with the big opening with lots of power. Maybe it was because Bach was a model idolized by so many different composers?

Saint-Saens – from what I remember – was really enjoying the piano (which was still new at the time) since it had so much possibility, and he wanted to use all the abilities of this instrument. I think he wanted to use the piano like an organ from this opening, with all the amazing sound and power. It’s very interesting when you compare the first and second movements, because they are like complete opposites: the second movement is this playful, light character. You can really feel that he wanted to share the capabilities of the piano and show what was possible; that’s my understanding of it.

CD: What do you like to do when you’re not practicing or performing?

LDLS: I love exploring the cities I’m in. I’m lucky to be able to travel the world for my work, but it’s even better to be able to explore and really get to know new cities. I really like walking in new cities; that feels like the best way to get to know a city for me. If I have more time, I like going to museums, especially art museums – it’s one of my passions! I also like exploring good restaurants; I LOVE great food, drinks, wines and cocktails! :) Any city with great food is a great place for me!

Don’t miss Lise de la Salle with the Houston Symphony!

Graf Conducts Schumann
February 20, 21, 22, 2015
Hans Graf, conductor
Lise de la Salle, piano

Buy tickets now!

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Meet HSL Concerto Competition Winner Ben Hoang!

Ben Hoang, 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition First Prize Winner

Ben Hoang, 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition First Prize Winner

On January 10,  16 young musicians competed to win the 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition. These students delivered many impressive performances, and at the end of the day the judges announced that the First Prize would be awarded to Ben Hoang, an eleven-year-old sixth grader from Austin who performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Recently, I got to ask Ben a few questions about himself and his amazing talent.

Calvin Dotsey:  Why did you choose the piano?

Ben Hoang: When I was 3, my sister started to play piano and I got to like the sound of the piano from listening to my sister practicing.

CD: When did you start playing the piano?

BH: I started playing at the age of 5.

CD: What musicians or people have inspired you most in your playing?

BH: Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, and of course, my teacher and my mom.

CD: Why did you pick this concerto? What do you love about this piece?

Ben Hoang performing Grieg's Piano Concerto at the 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition.

Ben Hoang performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at the 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition.

BH: I heard this Grieg concerto once on KMFA Austin 89.5, and thought it would be a nice concerto to play. When my teacher suggested for me to learn the concerto a few days later, I said yes already knowing how it sounds. We started with the 3rd movement, since it is more exciting. But I especially clicked with the 2nd movement which I find the most natural to express myself. Overall, what I love about this concerto is through it, I learn something about the Norwegian sea, with the seagulls and the ripples, and also the powerful waves.

CD: What are your favorite things to do when you are not practicing or doing homework?

BH: I enjoy reading and riding my bike, and of course, playing video games!!!

CD: What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

League_logoBH: I’m not sure yet about my hopes and dreams at this point. Maybe I can tell better in a few years.

Congratulations to Ben and all of the young musicians who participated this year. To learn more about the annual Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition, click here. You can watch Ben play the last movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra in the video below. Ben will perform the Grieg Concerto with the Houston Symphony at our upcoming Salute to Educators concert.

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