Artists on the Bench: This Week With Garrick Ohlsson

Lara Downes on October 9, 2014
Garrick Ohlsson
Garrick Ohlsson

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a towering presence, both musically and physically (he’s a robust 6’4”, with a stretch of a 12th in the left hand and an 11th in the right) in San Francisco, where he has made his home for many years and is a favorite of Bay Area audiences. This season he digs into the music of two equally titanic figures, performing the Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with San Francisco Symphony this week, and taking the stage at SFJAZZ for two all-Scriabin recitals in December and March, presented by SF Performances.

I’ve heard you say that when you were a kid you loved to play the piano so much that your mother had to make you go outside to play, because (in your own words!) you were such a geek. Are you still a geek, or do you like to go outside and play these days?

No, these days I’d rather go outside and play with the other kids! But I do really love practicing actually — there’s nothing I love more, in the sense that it’s wonderful to take a new piece and sort of put it into your hard drive. Because when you’re an interpreter, you really have to incorporate the music — you have to put it in your flesh and in your mind and your ears and all that. It’s all part of getting to the point where you become the vessel through which the music can be transmitted to other people. I really love just taking a new piece and finding out what it is, and expanding myself. It’s a wonderful process.

When you work on things you’ve played before — or in my case often for many, many years — you can have new ideas but sometimes it’s hard to put them into practice because the grooves are kind of well worn in your body and your nervous system just reacts in a certain way. Practicing for me at this point — let me knock down some myths — it’s really not about staying in shape. I mean, of course if you don’t play for a couple of months you will get out of shape, but that really doesn’t happen to me. There comes a point where some of this is just easier. Conservatory kids don’t understand how you can play one concerto one week and then another the next week, but believe me, if you’ve played a concerto 200 times, it really gets inside you in a way that is unimaginable when you’re young. So there are other things I can focus on when I’m practicing — letting myself be a blank slate and getting a piece of music to the point where I think I’ve absorbed it. It’s very intense work, but I really love it.

When you are learning something new, at this point, how long would you say it takes you to feel that you’ve achieved something approaching that long-term level of encompassing understanding or hold on the piece?

That’s a great question to which I’m not sure I have a good answer. Of course, beyond the length and the difficulty of the piece, it involves questions about the musical language. For example, apropos of this year, since I’m playing all the Scriabin Sonatas: When I was 17 I heard Sviatoslav Richter play the Scriabin Seventh Sonata at Carnegie Hall. And it was an incredible, unforgettable experience. I didn’t know what had happened to me; I had just never heard anything like that before. At that point I’d never looked at the piece — I barely even knew that all these Scriabin sonatas even existed. The language is so complex, virtually atonal, and at that point it was just impenetrable to me.

I didn’t learn the piece until this calendar year, in preparation for recording and these recital cycles. And I’d scheduled it for a first performance in March ... it really wasn’t ready until just last month. And I wasn’t expecting that. I’m usually pretty good at guesstimating how long it’s going to take before something is good enough to play in public, but in this case I was way wrong. And people were surprised, because I do play this repertoire so much, but I guess I’d just say “Well, you try learning the Scriabin Seventh Sonata, and then tell me what you think!”

Actually, it’s nice, in a way, to find that there are such challenges left. And it wasn’t so much because of the technical difficulties. It was really a question of understanding the language of the piece: Well, why does he do this here, and how does it relate, and what is the leading line, and what is the dominant rhythm? I’d understood the piece on an intellectual basis, but all of a sudden I had an emotional understanding, like I’d sort of gotten the language.

Well it is a language, right? And you can study a language and understand its structure and its syntax all you want, but you can’t feel it until you’re in a country, listening to that language, speaking it, surrounded by it.

Exactly. There comes a point with language where you don’t think about it anymore, you just say it, because you know its meaning from the inside.

I recently had the most wonderful experience. I actually found an old bootleg recording [on YouTube] of that same Richter recital I’d heard when I was 17! And it was just incredible to hear it again, close to 50 years later, and it was still an incredibly great performance. Just to hear how marvelously and how precisely he played, and how freely, with such an understanding of the push and the pull and the hills and the valleys of an immensely complicated piece — all the layers and all the textures…

What an amazing thing for you to have been able to revisit and reevaluate that moment.

It was, because as I said, at the time I knew it was amazing but I just had no idea what had happened. So to listen again, with the perspective of all these years, and knowing the piece so well now, and I thought: “Wow, yeah, this is still better than me. Yay, good for him!”

The last time we spoke, we were talking about Liszt. And you said at that time that Liszt is one of the two composers who makes you feel that he’s actually moving you and pushing you, and that Scriabin’s the other one. Tell me about that.

More than any other composers, Liszt and Scriabin can make you lose your cool. You just cannot help but get caught up in their passion and emotion. In the middle of a performance you can suddenly think “Why am I playing this so fast?” or ”Why am I slowing down this much? I didn’t plan that at all but it just seems to be the thing to do in this moment.” Sofronitsky, who was Scriabin’s son-in-law and a great interpreter of his music, said “Remember, when you play Scriabin he will overthrow you emotionally. You have to have icecubes in your veins.” Which is a paradox because you don’t want to sound like you’ve got icecubes in your veins. But you have to maintain an iron control or else all the passion will just blindside you. His music is so visceral, so hyper-everything, hyperemotional, hypersensuous, hypererotic, hypermanic, hyperexciting… But you have to stay connected to the structure.

But even when structure is more obvious, one has to be careful. For example, Chopin sort of stands halfway between Mozart and Scriabin. Chopin has all this clarity and all the structure and all the purity, and yet if that’s all you play, if you leave out the magic, you’ve got nothing. But if you only play the magic it’s quite sickening. I mean, if you get all vaporous and emotional it’s nice for a few minutes — and then yuck. And with Scriabin, of course, it’s practically the other side of the coin.

Tell me about your history with the Rachmaninov Third.

I learned it when I was 15, so let’s see, I’ve known it for 51 years! My teacher had me learn it one famous summer when I learned the Rachmaninov, Beethoven [Sonata, Opus] 109, Liszt Sonata, and Prokofiev Eighth Sonata. His wisdom was, if you learn it now you’ll never be afraid of it, and he was right. Don’t forget that, for the longest time, the piece was considered virtually unplayable, except by Rachmaninov himself, and he was one of the greatest pianists in history.

People do ask me “Is it true that it’s the most difficult piece in the repertoire?” and of course it is among the most difficult. You cannot find one work for the piano that incorporates more difficulties for the pianist in every respect, technically and in terms of sound, and let’s not even talk about style and musicianship. Just to get through the thing is incredibly impressive, and that’s why I think a lot of teenagers go after it, because if you can just manage to sort of get through it with most of those notes, people think you’re astounding. And in fact you are.

But of course, then to go on beyond that and to find the music in those notes is a whole other problem. It’s so thick and luxuriant that you have to really work to balance it. And also, in a 35-40 minute work like this you have to think about shape and pacing, which you do not hear from the teenagers! It’s a great piece I think. It attempts so much, in terms of light and dark and struggle and resolution, and it achieves all of it. And it comes with a truly satisfying and brilliant and heartwarming climax, not without its touch of pain.

I’m very pleased that next week it occupies what I think is its proper place on the program, which is the second half — not just because I’m the soloist and of course I should get all the applause! I mean that’s always nice. But the fact is, any symphony that gets programmed on the second half has to fight the success of the Rachmaninov Third, and nothing will sound very Technicolor after that!

It’s a tremendously difficult work for the conductor too, and for the orchestra, but San Francisco Symphony knows it well and we’ll have a great time.

Tell me about playing with the orchestra here, the differences between playing at home in San Francisco and out on the road. Aside from the comforts of home — being able to take a nap in your own bed and eat whatever snack you want out of your own fridge, you must have great friends both in the orchestra and in the audience when you play here.

Indeed, it’s different because you know the people in the orchestra and you actually have dinner with them and socialize with them, so you know more about what’s going on from their point of view. And of course I have friends out front in the house and that’s always very nice.

But you know, where I feel that playing “at home” is a little more difficult is in White Plains, New York, where I’m from. Because there, I look out front and I see people I’ve known for my whole life. And not so much anymore — I’ve had enough success now that I feel pretty confident — but I remember, even until I was in my 40s, I would see Mrs. So-and-So from high school who’d once told me I played too loud or something, and it would just go straight to my head!

Tell me about what you like to do when you go out to play, here in San Francisco.

I’ll just name a few of my favorite things, as the song goes:

Golden Gate Park, and that’s where you’ll find me most every day, riding a bike or just walking around. I’ve probably walked by every tree in the park. And I love all its attractions: the Arboretum and the Japanese Tea Garden.

I love walking on the cliffs at Lands End. That’s real nature and you can get to it so easily. We have access to so much beauty in nature here. I like the fact that it’s a cosmopolitan city and yet it doesn’t overwhelm you. Here I feel that there’s always something worth seeing in the artistic and cultural sphere, and yet it’s manageable.

I’m not very good at restaurants, because, as my partner Bob says, we’re the prisoners of an exceptional wine cellar, which I suppose is a very San Francisco thing. I’m very old fashioned and out of date. I just go to my favorite places: Zuni Café, or I like Mission Chinese a lot.

I even love our crazy weather, because maybe it’s too cold here or whatever, but it’s very good for pianos. And I’ll tell you that whenever I come home from wherever I am, most of the time it’s a lot nicer here than where I’ve come from!

The On The Bench Questionnaire

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?

I try to do whatever I need to do so that I'm sure that the end of the piece will sound really good. You always need a strong ending!

What’s the last thing you do before you go onstage?

I check “Flies and Ties.” And then I just stand there and breathe. If you breathe out you will breathe in. Then I do the same when I sit down at the piano. When I begin always I always breathe out.

If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?

Any Chopin concert. He is the greatest mystery to me, as a pianist. I think we’d be shocked either at how radical he was or how conservative. But he enchanted everyone who heard him, absolutely everyone.

If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?

That's another question for my younger self — it’s not something I think about anymore. But maybe astronomy, although that’s not so reasonable, is it? But I guess playing the piano is not so reasonable either.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday