Ohlsson's the man for Chopin

02.18.10
Garrick Ohlsson
The Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard

You could say Chopin is for lovers. No composer was more eloquent at articulating the myriad conflicting feelings brought on by love, making him arguably the quintessential Romantic.

Thursday marked the halfway point between Valentine's Day and the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin's birth, which is Monday. And it's hard to imagine there was a better place to commemorate both dates than at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall. That's where an expert Chopin interpreter, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, performed the composer's Second Piano Concerto with Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra. It proved a labor of love in more than one respect, the centerpiece of a concert that delved equally deeply into the hearts of Beethoven and Mozart.

Ohlsson is spending much of the winter performing all-Chopin recitals, but this weekend's performances of the turbulent Second Concerto allow him to explore the composer on a larger scale. On Thursday, he offered a paradoxical combination of force and introspection, most memorably during the second movement, which Chopin said he wrote under the influence of a secret love. Ohlsson's interpretation could both break hearts and melt them with its fluid segues from shy hesitation to effusive outpouring.

This is a program full of musical riches, starting with Michael Steinberg's string orchestra arrangement of Beethoven's complex "Grosse Fuge," originally written as the finale of a string quartet. Thursday's performance seemed to tap into the essence of Beethoven's sense of striving, feeling like a touching musical memorial for Steinberg, a longtime Minnesota Orchestra collaborator who died last summer. It should prove a powerful curtain raiser when Vanska and the orchestra perform it at New York's Carnegie Hall on March 1.

And what a pleasure it was to hear Mozart's Symphony No. 40 get the Vanska treatment. The conductor again took a familiar work and likely made many feel as if they were hearing it for the first time.