Chopin, Garrick Ohlsson, San Diego Symphony make winning combination

Garrick Ohlsson
San Diego News Network

By Valerie Scher

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a key player in San Diego's Chopin Bicentennial Celebration. To watch pianist Garrick Ohlsson play Chopin is to watch a musical genius at work. There’s barely a hint of exertion. Or attention-getting showmanship.

His virtuosity — a combination of intellect, emotion, muscle memory and so much more — focuses attention on the music rather than the musician.  So you watch and listen, gratefully, as he makes notes as delicately intricate as hand-made lace or turns chords into rampaging rivers of sound.

That, at least, was the impression on Friday at downtown’s Copley Symphony Hall during the first of the weekend’s three Jacobs’ Masterworks concerts featuring Ohlsson, music director Jahja Ling and the San Diego Symphony.

Local music-lovers are hearing a lot from Ohlsson. Last month, the 61-year-old Chopin specialist launched the Chopin Bicentennial Celebration 2010/San Diego with a sold-out La Jolla Music Society recital. On November 5-7, he’ll join Ling and the San Diego Symphony for more Chopin at Symphony Hall.

This time around, he’s playing Chopin’s “Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante” and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor. If Chopin had ever written a well-known symphony, that might have been included, too….Friday’s concert also belonged to Chopin. Christopher Beach, the La Jolla Music Society’s president and artistic director, was on hand to tout the Bicentennial Celebration, which he called the “largest Chopin exploration anywhere in the U.S.”

Though Ohlsson may not be the most thrilling Chopin interpreter, he is among the most accomplished. The “Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante” — never before performed at a San Diego Symphony concert — received such an assured interpretation from both the pianist and orchestra that you could almost forget that the piece is a quirky hybrid that exists in various versions.

Chopin wasn’t an outstanding orchestrator — to him, the piano was paramount. Yet he gave the orchestra some alluring passages in the Piano Concerto No. 2, as in the bittersweet bassoon solo that was played so well by principal bassoonist Valentin Martchev.

As for Ohlsson, he supplied whatever the score required, from pearly trills to dramatic unisons, exquisitely nuanced chromaticism to dazzling double octaves. He didn’t stop there. Ohlsson rewarded the audience with an encore — Chopin’s richly expansive Waltz in E-Flat Major, Op. 18.

How was his playing?
In a word, superb.