The opening of the President’s Piano Series is always a big event for keyboard fans — particularly when local favorite Garrick Ohlsson is back in town. An international star, the San Francisco-based Ohlsson has enjoyed playing the former Meany Theater (now renamed the Katharyn Alvord Gerlich Theater) ever since he arrived there in 1982 for a recital with violinist Miriam Fried.
“I walked into the hall to try out the piano,” Ohlsson remembers, “and when I heard the sound, I said: ‘Oh, hello!’ I just fell for the hall. It’s so acoustically satisfying — really perfect, with great sound. It’s intimate, but so resonant and clear.”
He’s “enough of an old-timer” by his own estimation (born in 1948) that Ohlsson remembers playing recitals here in the old Seattle Center Playhouse (now Cornish Playhouse) and the Seattle Opera House (now Marion Oliver McCaw Hall). He tactfully calls those earlier halls “not ideal — but I love Meany and the audiences. I’ve been here so much; it feels so familiar, and it’s always one of the most special halls to me.”
This season, Ohlsson is concentrating on the music of Brahms (several other recitals will feature Brahms’ complete solo works for piano), as well as Chopin, of which he has long been an undisputed master. That’s not surprising, since Ohlsson’s career was launched with a 1970 win at the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition — the first and only American to win this prestigious prize.
“Brahms didn’t leave behind many pieces that weren’t absolutely Grade A,” Ohlsson observes. In Seattle, he’ll play Brahms’ two Rhapsodies of Op. 79, and the seven “Fantasien” of Op. 116, as well as the “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.” The Chopin works on the program include the Nocturne in B-flat Minor (Op. 9, No. 1), and the big Sonata No. 3 in B Minor of Op. 58.
“Chopin has been with me my whole career,” Ohlsson muses, “and it’s one of my greatest pleasures, returning again and again to this music and seeing things in a new way. Inevitably I see things like tempo and character and thematic relationships differently. You plan it all quite specifically, but everything in a recital happens in the moment.
“The pianist is three people at once: you plan what you want to happen in a given piece, and you listen to what you’re actually doing — ‘Oops, I got going too fast here, and I’ll be in trouble a few minutes down the road.’ And then you’re the listener: you have to engage your sixth sense, imagining what the public is hearing. You also play for yourself.”
And, of course, for audiences around the world. This past August, Ohlsson went on tour with the National Youth Orchestra of China, led by a conductor very familiar to Seattle: Ludovic Morlot, who recently stepped down as the Seattle Symphony’s music director.
“I like him very much,” Ohlsson says of Morlot. “He is marvelous as a musician and a human being, and he was brilliant at overcoming the shyness of the young principal players and developing a rapport with them.”
Ohlsson, who is famous for his distinctively lush, powerful sonority as well as the subtleties he coaxes from the keyboard, says that he greatly enjoyed rehearsing with the young Chinese musicians. He asked them to “listen to how I do it” at the piano, and watched the shock of recognition as the youngsters realized how well his advice worked for them. Ohlsson, who played Beethoven’s famous “Emperor” Concerto on the tour, jokes about following the advice of legendary conductor Bruno Walter: “I smile — but I insist.” The young players were “so eager, focused and concentrated” during the challenging tour, which began in Shanghai and went on to Germany, England and Italy.
“They were very quick to learn, and they treated me with that respect that they give to the not-so-young,” Ohlsson says.
“I had to tell them: I’m just playing the ‘Emperor,’ I’m not really the Emperor!”
Garrick Ohlsson opens the President’s Piano Series, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1; Katharyn Alvord Gerlich Theater at Meany Hall, 4040 George Washington Lane N.E., University of Washington, Seattle; $51-$59; 206-543-4880, meanycenter.org