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.
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.
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