A missionary zeal for mahler

04.05.08
Garrick Ohlsson
Globe & Mail

In Toronto on Thursday Garrick Ohlsson, whom we used to think of - along with Van Cliburn - as one of the towering young men of American pianism, made us feel our years Thursday. He had come to Toronto to play Mozart's last piano concerto - K.595 in B flat - and after his strikingly lucid, contained, serene performance, guest conductor Benjamin Zander took to the microphone to tell us that Thursday marked Ohlsson's 60th birthday and then led us all in an unrehearsed rendition of Happy Birthday. Ohlsson responded by finding the key on the piano, playing along gamely, and finishing off the impromptu celebration with a fine virtuoso flourish.

Ohlsson still looks remarkably young, scarcely different from when he won the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, 38 years ago. He is still one of the tallest pianists before the public and he is certainly playing as well as ever, his big arms embracing the concert grand as if it were a toy, his long quiet hands marshalling Mozart's transparent fabrics of sound with flawless precision and delicacy, driven by an astute insight.

Even preceded by the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro and prolonged by the few moments of birthday wishes - really part of the applause - Mozart occupied only the first half hour or so of the concert. The behemoth, Mahler's Fifth Symphony - 70 minutes and counting - lay ahead after an early intermission. And Zander preceded the symphony with about 10 eloquent extra minutes of introduction.

He made it quickly apparent that he has a missionary's dedication to the music of Mahler. His mission, to which he gives his whole mind, heart and soul, is to convince his orchestra and his audience of the singular glories of Mahler's music. His own conviction is absolute and as a conductor he works unstintingly to convey it and share it. One cannot but respect and applaud such all-out effort. And there was no doubt he succeeded Thursday with the very large audience. It gave him and the orchestra a tremendous ovation.

The Fifth is one of Mahler's more remarkable creations. It is harmonically richer and more sophisticated than his earlier symphonies, and structurally more enterprising. If I had a cavil about Zander's interpretation, it would be that his organization of the music's sound masses was too hectoring in its intent. Its many climaxes were so high in volume and stress that, as they succeeded one another, they numbed our receptors. The famous fourth movement - the Adagio for strings and harp - lived up to its reputation Thursday, not so much through the lushness of its harmony as through the relief it afforded from super-sonorous big brass and furious assaults of percussion, all seemingly at full stretch most of the time.

The energy and command, the passion and zeal of Zander's reading were stunning, but perhaps too stunning. In the pressing urgency of it all, some element of perspective had been shouldered out of the way.