Powerful and persuasive, Ohlsson shines with S.D. Symphony

Jahja Ling, Garrick Ohlsson
U~T San Diego

By James Chute

It’s difficult to think of someone with the accomplishments and expertise of pianist Garrick Ohlsson as being overlooked.

Yet, because he’s such a regular visitor to San Diego, frequently performing with both the San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Music Society, it’s easy to take him for granted.

But as Ohlsson reminded everyone at Copley Symphony Hall Friday in a superb performance of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto with the San Diego Symphony, he’s a powerful, persuasive presence at the keyboard.

Given that Ohlsson played the Tchaikovsky No. 2 six days after Lang Lang played the Tchaikovsky No. 1 with the orchestra, it was difficult not to make comparisons. Ohlsson has none of the flash or charisma of Lang Lang, but he has equal command and commitment.

Three decades have passed since the San Diego Symphony last programmed the Concerto No. 2, reflecting the long shadow of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Concerto No. 1. Ohlsson, however, made you wonder why they waited so long.

It’s a quirky piece, with a first movement that seems uncharacteristically disjointed, especially compared with the fluid, organic nature of the first movement of the Concerto No. 1. The second movement is also something of an oddity (it’s essentially a piano, violin and cello trio with orchestral accompaniment).

But what the piece has in spades is tunes: one distinctive, unforgettable melody after another. If you don’t leave the concert hall humming the theme of the third movement, you might be tone deaf.

With the strong, enthusiastic support of conductor Jahja Ling, Ohlsson made the piano sing at every possible opportunity. Concertmaster Jeff Thayer and principal cello Yao Zhao matched him line for line in the second movement and everyone involved seemed to relish the third movement’s high spirits.

The orchestra was in excellent form in a well-balanced program that also included Respighi’s Suite I from “Ancient Airs and Dances” and Haydn’s Symphony No. 102.

The strings in particular were able to create two entirely different sound worlds: a darker, more substantial sound suitable for Tchaikovsky, and a lighter, more articulated approach appropriate to Haydn. The energy and the finesse the musicians brought to the Hadyn was especially impressive.

If Ohlsson’s Tchaikovsky left you humming, the orchestra’s Haydn left you dancing. It’s a rare concert that can accomplish both.