San Diego Chopin Celebration scores high in opening concert

Garrick Ohlsson
San Diego News Network

By Valerie Scher

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a bunch of arts administrators to foster the Chopin Bicentennial Celebration 2010/San Diego. At least that’s the way it seemed on Friday, when pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s captivating, sold-out recital launched the year-long extravaganza consisting of a dozen programs by a variety of local organizations.

“This is a big undertaking,” the La Jolla Music Society’s Christopher Beach told the audience at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. He wasn’t exaggerating. Beach hatched the idea for the celebration and got other local institutions involved in what may be the country’s largest 200th birthday bash for the composer born on March 1. California Ballet’s Maxine Mahon, the San Diego Symphony’s Edward B. “Ward” Gill, and the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory’s Dalouge Smith all made brief remarks from the stage. In these rocky financial times, it was heartening to see such camaraderie and cooperation.

And Ohlsson - who will perform Chopin works with the San Diego Symphony in February and November — set a high standard during his Sherwood recital. If the rest of the Bicentennial programs rival his artistry, this is going to be an outstanding Chopin spree.

The 61-year-old New York native has long been a Chopin expert. Back in 1970, he became the first American to win Poland’s Chopin International Piano Competition. His recordings of the complete Chopin piano works document his mastery. Friday’s recital was a sampling of everything from Nocturnes, Polonaises and Mazurkas to sonatas, waltzes and variations — all capped by a single, immaculately performed encore, the sprightly finale of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 330. As Ohlsson pointed out, Mozart was one of Chopin’s favorite composers. Whatever the piece, Ohlsson fit the definition of a virtuoso as someone who makes difficult music seem easy. Maybe too easy. His stage presence was rather stolid, giving little sense of the tremendous mental and physical requirements of such a performance. There was rarely a hint of a struggle with complex passages. He didn’t even mop his head with a hankie.

Yet no one could take him for granted, not if they listened carefully and watched his hands (seen via live video on a screen above the stage). Nothing distracted the focus on Chopin - except the high-pitched whine from hearing aids, which stopped after Beach interrupted the concert and asked audience members to check them. What struck me about Ohlsson’s playing was the way he made virtuosity serve the music, rather than merely using it as a means to display his phenomenal technical prowess.

Consider the exquisitely nuanced little melody that brightened the stormy Scherzo in B-Flat Minor; the fortissimos in the C-Sharp Minor Étude that were bold but never bombastic; and the finale of the Piano Sonata No. 2, during which he turned the score’s surging triplets into a musical tsunami that moved at breath-taking speed.

Quite a start to Chopin’s birthday celebration.