During an all-Liszt program on Friday, March 9, at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, the audience can watch pianist Garrick Ohlsson's fingers fly across the keyboard. Courtesy photo

During an all-Liszt program on Friday, March 9, at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, the audience can watch pianist Garrick Ohlsson's fingers fly across the keyboard. Courtesy photo


Pianist Garrick Ohlsson returns to Mondavi with all-Liszt program

By From page A9 | March 07, 2012


Who: Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, performing Liszt

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $35-$72 general, $17.50-$36 students; www.mondaviarts.org, (530) 754-2787

Garrick Ohlsson — who performs at the Mondavi Center at 8 p.m. Friday — established his reputation as a fine pianist decades ago, for his interpretation of the music of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). In 1970, Ohlsson famously became the first American to win the International Chopin Competition, held in Poland, where Chopin was born, and is widely revered.

But before all that, Ohlsson had a thing for the music of Franz Liszt — the great Hungarian pianist and composer who was born the year after Chopin, and who lived much longer.

“The fact is that as a young male pianist — when I was 13 years old — I definitely preferred Liszt,” Ohlsson recalled in a phone interview last week with The Enterprise. “Of course, I liked certain Chopin pieces, but I thought some of his music was kind of icky. But I was just mad about Liszt. And of course, Liszt was noisier than Chopin!”

Ohlsson — now a mature artist in his 60s, who gives recitals and appears with major orchestras around the world — is still drawn to Liszt, but for somewhat different reasons.

“When I was 12 or 13, I was intrigued by the sheer athleticism and noise and brilliance of Liszt,” Ohlsson said. “A lot of young pianists are drawn by that. But what attracts me to Lizst now is Liszt the great composer, and the spiritual Liszt. He could be a rigorously great composer when he wanted to be.”

Liszt’s long life included multiple phases. As a young man, Liszt was a virtuoso sensation — handsome, passionate, romantically linked with any number of women, and well aware of his fame.

“You could say that Chopin was a tubercular 90-pound weakling, and Chopin was also a private person,” Ohlsson said. “Liszt was like a movie star, with a huge public persona.”

Liszt also had a reputation for wrecking pianos with a single, spectacular performance. The audience would swoon, but the instrument would be ready for the junkyard by the time Liszt was done.

“Liszt pushed the envelope, and the piano manufacturers of his day responded,” Ohlsson said. “Modern pianos are made of sturdier stuff, and they can take an all-Liszt program — in part, thanks to him.”

Liszt traveled all over Europe, socialized with the rich and famous in Rome and Paris, then became increasingly interested in spiritual matters and joined a religious order, living in a monastery for a time. And all the while, he was composing.

“You look at how much music Liszt wrote, and it’s hard to believe any person who lived to age 75 could write all that down — much less be a great concert pianist, and father that many children, and take priestly orders, and be a conductor of orchestras,” Ohlsson said. “There were more facets to Liszt than you could fit into most people’s lives.”

Some of Liszt’s music has not worn well over time. Ohlsson acknowledges that some of Liszt’s music can be “show-offy,” and “in questionable taste. … Sometimes in our more modest age, we’re a little embarrassed by his sheer emotionalism. It’s not done by metaphor and aphorism. It’s laid out there, all the blood and guts.”

That makes an all-Liszt recital an intriguing challenge for the modern performer.

“You can’t underplay the extreme drama or the hyper-romanticism,” Ohlsson advised. “If you do, it  just sounds smaller. If you try to present Liszt with Chopinian or Mozartean refinement, it isn’t going to sound like Liszt. He’s a larger-than-life personality.”

Ohlsson, who has performed at Mondavi twice before, said he approached the task by focusing on Liszt compositions that “emphasize the serious side of Liszt” — pieces in which Liszt focused his compositional skills so that the resulting music amounts to considerably more than “showing the pianist off.”

At the same time Ohlsson acknowledged that “even when Liszt was writing his most serious music, he didn’t exactly leave his virtuosity at home.”

The all-Lizst program that Ohlsson will play in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall — which includes the massive Sonata in B Minor, as well as “Funérailles” — is identical to the recital he gave in New York in January. That performance was rated as “stunning” by music critic Vivien Schweitzer, who added, “Ohlsson’s performance stood out for the passion and force of his interpretation… (and his) gifts as a storyteller held the audience spellbound. He achieved the rare feat of eliciting silence from his listeners; there was barely a cough or a rustle throughout the program.”

Tickets are $35-$72 general, $17.50-$36 students, www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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