Ohlsson plays with authority

04.28.08
Garrick Ohlsson
The Commercial Appeal

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Nearly 40 years after Garrick Ohlsson won the 1970 Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, he is still one of America's favorite Chopin interpreters.

The 59-year-old pianist opened the Kansas City Symphony's season this weekend at the Lyric Theatre with an elegant rendering of the composer's Second Piano Concerto, with Michael Stern and the orchestra providing a rich accompaniment.

While some yank and twist Chopin's phrases willfully in the name of rubato, Ohlsson mined a more Apollonian vein, with crystalline transparency of sound, muscle when needed and passagework that was stoical, at times almost detached.

The first movement moved gently forward to a fine climax. But in the big string-tremolo moment of the slow movement, I felt the drama was being underplayed. Later I found myself wishing the pianist had imbued the concerto with more of the shadings and breathless hesitations he brought to the delicious encore he played Sunday, Chopin's Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2.

The concert had opened with Jennifer Higdon's 1999 "Blue Cathedral," a personal tribute to the composer's late brother. It also is a tribute to Samuel Barber, whose lush harmonic idiom and sophisticated motivic style it openly emulates. The motives mostly ascend, as if to reach to heaven. While the percussion section is busy striking chimes, bells and cymbals, the brass play crystal glasses, and the string players are asked to rattle dozens of Chinese Reflex Bells.

For me, it evoked a village whose church bells and clanging censers were heard in counterpoint with a flock of sheep led through the countryside, their bellwether providing another call to worship.

The concert concluded with a highly accomplished performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," which showed off Stern's deft grasp of the heavy Slavic idiom of "The Old Castle" and "The Great Gate at Kiev" and displayed the several new wind and horn players to vibrant advantage.

Jon W. Sparks of The Commercial Appeal