Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, grew up in White Plains, New York, going into Manhattan for concerts at Carnegie Hall, where Arthur Rubinstein’s Chopin recital made a huge impression on him at the age of 9. Ohlsson attended Juilliard at 13, and in 1970, he became the first American to win the Chopin International Piano Competition. He’s also won the Avery Fisher Prize and top prizes at the Busoni Competition and the Montreal Piano Competition, and he’s known for his performances of the works of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and the Romantic repertoire. He won a Grammy for the third volume of his 10-disc set of the complete Beethoven sonatas.
Ohlsson will perform with the Apollon Musagète Quartet on Oct. 7 at Herbst Theatre. The program, presented by San Francisco Performances, includes Bach’s The Art of Fugue, Nos. 1, 4, and 9; Antonín Dvořák’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 51; and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quintet, Op. 57. In an interview, the pianist talked about his lack of histrionics, not wanting to be a specialist, and Juilliard in the 1960s.
You teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What do you think is important for young musicians to know?
Oh, gosh, that’s a big subject. Music teaching, instrumental teaching, is a one-on-one thing. If you could learn it out of a book or do it on YouTube, there’d be even more musicians. So really, the information has to go basically one at a time, and you have to work with an individual person to help them on their issues physically and musically and emotionally too. I was the beneficiary of so many great teachers and really the only way for me to pass that along is do some teaching regularly. I’ve done lots of master classes in the past, but that’s not the same. Somebody gets up and plays, usually pretty well, and then you make a few nice, intelligent comments, and everybody says, “Isn’t that wonderful?” And that’s the end of it. But teaching is much more like parenting. It’s a relationship, and each person is different, not only in the level of their playing but in who they are. It’s rather fascinating and kind of challenging, but I figured it was the time in my life to do a little bit of that.
You went to Juilliard when you were 13. Were you so glad to be there or was it overwhelming to be there so young?
Both. I was incredibly glad to be there. Juilliard has two schools, as you know: It has a pre-college division, which meets on Saturday, and it has the world-famous Juilliard School of Music. So, I was officially enrolled in the pre-college from 13 to 18. But I was studying with one of the most famous teachers from the big school. In other words, I wasn’t assigned to a pre-college teacher. I was assigned to one of the star teachers because I had auditioned for him when I was 13, and he immediately took me into his class. I was there with undergrads, masters students, and doctoral students at a very high-level school. I was one of the very talented brats who were chosen by the school to study in that way. So I was incredibly thrilled, but the pressure was simply enormous. Juilliard is not a school that makes allowances for the fact that, well, he’s only 13. This was a long time ago, so it was very much sort of old, European or Russian school-style teaching. You are not judged on your age; you are judged on what you can do.
Was it at Juilliard that you started to love Chopin?
Oh, no, before that. I think all kids are drawn to Chopin. He’s the Rosetta Stone for how to play the piano and how to make beautiful sound on the piano and how to do difficult things. Since I lived in White Plains, which is only, in those days, about 45 minutes by car from Manhattan, most of my concert experiences were in New York City, which, of course, is one of the capitals of the world. And I just didn’t realize at age 9 that everybody didn’t go to Carnegie Hall a number of times a year to hear the world’s greatest. The first really great pianist I heard there was Arthur Rubinstein. He did an all-Chopin recital, and that left an incredible, indelible mark on me. I had heard a lot of Chopin already by that point, but I had never heard it played in that way, in such an incredible way, and it just really impressed me. At age 9, I was not yet ready to tackle much of it. But by age 11, I was playing pieces by Chopin. It was organic.
After you won the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition, somebody told you that you should just play Chopin for three years. Why did you reject that? That must have been hard to do.
No, it wasn’t hard at all. I had an unreasonable amount of self-confidence. I didn’t know how the world really worked then. This was my agent, and he was a very good agent, very smart, and what he was outlining was a commercial plan for a career. I was naive. I thought that winning one of the world’s most important competitions meant everybody knew you. But I did not realize that you actually have to go make your debut, not only in New York and London, but Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and every place else, so that you can establish who you are. And if you have a calling card like the Chopin Competition, it makes it a little easier because the sponsor can publicize that. However, don’t forget: There’s art, and there’s the business of art. The two of them are quite related because without the business of art, the art can’t get on the stage. But I was very, very confident.
Also, there was one other thing: Van Cliburn had won the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, the first-ever [American winner] in a huge Cold War victory, and became just about the most famous pianist in the world. He became such a crossover superstar that by the middle of the 1960s, he was playing Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto 200 times a year for the highest fees imaginable, mostly for screaming teenage girls. I mean, he played it great, but after a while … when you have that much success thrown at you, can you possibly resist it? It’s like what happens to megastars — sometimes it interferes with your mental processes and clarity. So even though he was an enormously great pianist, a lot of piano teachers were wagging their fingers at us and saying, “Don’t let what happened to Van happen to you.” In other words, be prepared to have a larger repertory, and don’t just play the same things all the time. So, I was determined not to be a specialist, at age 22 when I thought I knew everything. My agent was very smart. He heard what I said, and he just leaned back in his chair and said, “All right, but it won’t go as fast.”
What’s your routine like for how you work?
These days, I get up and have breakfast and check my emails, you know how it is. Everybody does that. But I like to practice, or I call it work — just be with music, I don’t know, practicing sounds like I’m doing scales. But I work on music, the music that’s coming up and [other things]. If I can have the first three hours of the day relatively clear, that is perfection because my brain isn’t yet fouled up by all the stuff that can foul you up during the day. I feel coherent, and I have good energy, morning energy, clear, and I can really devote myself to doing musical work. However, life does not always cooperate, and sometimes the dentist can only see you at 10, or your flight leaves at 10 or 8 or whatever, and your day is completely fouled up.
I would say that that ideal sort of working time of three hours or so before lunch, without any major interruption, only happens about 25 percent of the time. That’s what I call doing the really deep work of music — not just learning the notes and making sure everything’s in place, that’s housekeeping in a way, but the artistic side of how you feel about phrasing and how you understand the music. Doing deep work with yourself, the way an actor has to do. An actor who plays Hamlet has to learn the words first, of course, but then has to contemplate [his] own relationship with these great words, right? You don’t go to see a Shakespeare play with an actor just because they memorized it. They have to embody the role and make you feel it. That’s part of what we do as musicians, too. We have to absorb the music so that it’s really in our hard drive, so that it’s really part of you, and then project it to others so that they can feel it. That takes some doing, and it’s not a clear path. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ll make this crescendo now, and that takes care of the problem.”
How did you come to play with the Apollon Musagète Quartet, and how did you decide on the music [for this Oct. 7 program]?
I met the Apollon Musagète Quartet in Warsaw in 2018. They’re one of the leading European string quartets, and being Polish, I have a big connection with Poland because I’ve gone there so much and that’s where I won the Chopin prize. That’s where I first met them, and we had a marvelous collaboration. We were going to have another collaboration during COVID in 2020, but that went away.
With a thing like this, there’s a lot of practicalities … [but] then there’s the aspect of what we wanted to play. And with piano quintets, it’s quite simple because there are only about a half dozen really great ones. It’s not a big pond of repertory. If it was string quartets alone, you’d have about 300 great ones to choose from. But with piano quintets, it’s Brahms, Dvořák, Robert Schumann, César Franck, Shostakovich, and probably some others. We landed on the Shostakovich, which is a very powerful, wonderful piece, very beautiful and intriguing. It’s [the Quartet’s] tour, and I’m a guest soloist. I think this is their American debut tour, but they’re not that well known here. They are simply, stunningly wonderful.
What are you most looking forward to about this concert and playing with the Quartet?
Whenever you work with a quartet that you like very much, or musicians you like very much, who work at an extremely high level, it’s extremely stimulating because we have a rehearsal and we actually discuss with each other how we feel about the phrasing, the pacing, the dynamics, and the feeling of the work we’re playing. You get to go deeper into the material, and you get to benefit from each other’s experience, and sometimes you even have disagreement, and that can be very wonderful, too. It’s very highly cooperative, and that’s what I really love.
In reviews of your performances, it seems like everyone mentions your lack of histrionics. Was that a conscious thing you decided, or were you taught not to be that way?
I think it is what I do, but I also think it was very much influenced by the time I grew up at Juilliard. Once again, it’s sort of very old-fashioned, a strict European/Russian model of music education. Right from the start, my wonderful teacher at Juilliard said, “The more energy you put into things that are not related to playing and the music, the less energy you’ll have for the music.” In other words, 100 percent of your focus and energy isn’t too much. There’s nobody who plays too well. It doesn’t exist. So, if you were wasting energy in unnecessary movements, or even being showy or histrionic or, you know, swooping around, that was simply not tolerated. We all grew up that way at that time.
I do want to say there are some people who are naturally much more florid in their expression than others, and some people who are naturally quiet. I don’t mind a very expressive musician who moves around a lot if I feel it’s their nature. If I feel they’re putting on a show, then that’s phony, and you can tell that right away. I can promise you — you don’t know me, but if you came to one of my recitals, and I started swooping and swooning and gazing at the heavens, anybody would say, “He’s a fake.” You don’t have to be a musician.