An interview with Garrick Ohlsson

He’s here to play but let’s hope we also get to hear some words from Garrick Ohlsson. The loquacious American pianist who is sometimes known as “The Chopin Guy” (for obvious reasons) likes to chat to his audience, sometimes about Chopin, sometimes about Scriabin (both of whom feature strongly in this Music Viva tour program) or other composers and music in general.

Ohlsson is an erudite and entertaining man who loves to background his performances. In particular, hearing him talk about Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), the enigmatic Russian pianist, is a treat. Ohlsson is fascinated with Scriabin whom he describes as “canonical yet relatively rarely heard because all his music is for piano solo”.

“I like to talk about Scriabin because very often the concert going audience doesn’t have a handle on who he is,” Ohlsson offers. “He starts out as a Chopin obsessive but by the end of his life he is very much an individual. I love talking to the audience about him because he is so out there. He was also obsessed with Chopin as a child. He was this neurasthenic, hypersensitive teenager who slept with Chopin’s music under his pillow.”

Scriabin, he explains, is “one of the strangest and most interesting composers”. He was also a philosopher and even a bit of a mystic with an interest in theosophy, a man who “wanted to save the world through his art”.

Scriabin’s powerful, impressionistic music is an ideal match for Ohlsson’s authoritative playing. He’s a physically imposing figure whose playing style has been described as projecting an “Olympian serenity”.

“Music makes you feel things that almost bypass consciousness"

His program also features a new work, Convocations by the Australian composer Thomas Misson, a musician from Hobart who was commissioned by Musica Viva to compose this new work to be premiered by Garrick Ohlsson. It was commissioned by Musica Viva donor Stephen Johns as a birthday gift for his wife, Michele and Ohlsson enjoys the fact that playing the piece will be a rather unique way of saying happy birthday.

Of course, there will be some Chopin in the program – how could there not be?

The foundation of Ohlsson’s long and successful career is Chopin’s music and he has that in common with Scriabin.

Ohlsson burst onto the international scene in 1970 when, at the age of 22, he won first prize in the International Chopin Piano Competition, the first American to have done so.

In an interview with Calvin Dotsey for the Houston Symphony, Ohlsson acknowledged the affect the prize had on his life.

“It really put my name on the front page of the world’s major newspapers. So, in a way the competition and Chopin’s music really were the decisive turning point in my having a career. It gave me my first step everywhere and Chopin’s music has been with me my whole life. I’ve played so much Chopin. In fact, I’ve recorded it all.”

The San Francisco based musician describes himself as “a wandering minstrel” who says travel is “boring and tedious”.

“But I’ve become good at it,” he says.

Garrick Ohlsson has visited Australia on a number of occasions.

“I guess you could say that I’m a semi regular visitor,” he says. “Last time I was there was in 2020 just after all the terrible bushfires.”

He believes that music is “a tonic and a balm for the soul in all aspects”.

“Music makes you feel things that almost bypass consciousness,” he says and that sounds like something Scriabin might have said or at least agreed with. But as much as he likes to talk about music and the composers he loves Garrick Ohlsson doesn’t want to explain away the magical elements of classical music. The mystique should remain intact he suggests.

To that end he tells a favourite story about a woman who, hearing the young and then relatively unknown Beethoven play, was a bit mystified by this new music.

“She asked him what the piece he had just played meant,” Ohlsson says and there was only one way for Beethoven to answer. “He sat down and played it again.” Point taken.



By Phil Brown

See Garrick Ohlsson on tour between June 1-19 2023. Tickets are available here.