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World-Renowned Pianist Returns to Solo With QCSO

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Garrick Ohlsson
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QCSO piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson

Forty-three years after he first soloed with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra,
world-renowned pianist Garrick Ohlsson is back this weekend to play what’s considered the quintessential American piano concerto.

Ohlsson, who's now 73, will perform the Samuel Barber Concerto from 1962, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The only time it’s been played here was 2000, by John Browning, who premiered it in then-new Lincoln Center in New York. Ohlsson loves the work, which he played with QCSO conductor Mark Russell Smith in Springfield, Mass., in the mid ‘80s.

“There are arguably a few novels that might be the Great American Novel. This is certainly the Great American Piano Concerto in one sense, which is that this is a classic concerto with brilliant orchestration, in the mode of piano concertos as they evolved, through the 20th century. But not the kind of 12-tone or Schoenberg-esque kind of thing. This is much more sort of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev style, but with an American flavor and accents.

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Garrick Ohlsson

“It definitely sounds mid-20th century American, a little bit film noir in the first movement, but I think it's a masterpiece. It's got what very few pieces have after World War II -- which is several really beautiful melodies.”

“Barber was always a great melodist, and he, like Rachmaninoff, suffered from not being progressive enough for part of the musical establishment. And because Barber always had this blatantly melodic, romantic side to him, which he expresses. The first and last movements are a bit more modern-esque, but they're nothing like the modern music being written in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was considered by the progressives to be old-fashioned. But audiences always liked him. I don't know why it's fallen out of favor. I can't imagine, because it is as effective as any Prokofiev concerto, and well, nothing is as effective as the Rachmaninoff 2nd and 3rd, if the truth be told .”

“I think it's a terrific vehicle for the piano. In other words, it’s written for a heroic, virtuoso pianist and it's got brilliant orchestration. It's incredibly effective; the first movement is very dramatic, quite film noir, but it has that yearning, beautiful romantic melody right in the middle of it. And then the second movement is enchanting canzone, a song. And the last movement is just a barnburner of an exciting piece, in 5/8 time. So I personally don't know why it's not popular, more popular, but it's certainly effective and I've never played it when the audience didn't like it just as much as it liked any major piano concerto.”

As a teenager, Ohlsson did hear Browning play it in the 1960s, conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Lincoln Center, and the audience was enthralled.

“It was very exciting for a young artist to watch that. I remember thinking that, I want to play that piece one day.”

Since winning the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition, Ohlsson has established himself worldwide as a musician of interpretive and technical prowess. Although long regarded as one of the world’s leading exponents of the music of Frédéric Chopin, Ohlsson commands an enormous repertoire, ranging over the entire piano literature.

Being benched during COVID was hard, but based in San Francisco, he kept busy practicing, and performing solo livestreamed concerts once a month.

“Streaming is actually excellent and may be a new element of concert life, but it’s not gonna replace the real thing. There’s nothing like the synergy of performer and audience. The audience stimulates us and we stimulate the audience. When it goes well, it’s very exciting. It’s like somebody wrote in an op-ed – when I go to the movies, I want other people to be there. I don’t actually want to talk to them, but I want to see the film with them. Same with theater and same with music. It’s social in an abstract way, but the fact that everyone’s there paying attention, and that creates its own energy, and that’s an incomparable thing which I very much love.”

His first live, in-person concert this year was with the Indianapolis Symphony in June, wearing a mask, with a 25-percent capacity audience limit. Ohlsson played with an orchestra in Zurich, Switzerland in June, but it was concerts with just 100 people at each, due to COVID safety rules.

The first time he played with the QCSO was in 1978, and he’s been here several times since, most recently in 2016.

“The first time I had played with the Quad City Symphony, I had been with all kinds of orchestras – some of the greatest in the world, and some of the least in the world, of course, because it’s a wide range. I didn’t know Quad-Cities, and nobody told me a thing about it.”

It was February, snowy, and Ohlsson wondered why he was here, meeting then-conductor James Dixon. They performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5.

“I thought, wow, beautiful playing, especially good tone, in tune, good intonation, good balancing, good listening habits. I thought this is much better than I expected from, how can I put it, the demographics of the Quad Cities. I know you’re not small, but you don’t have a catchment area of just 10 million, like Chicago does, to draw from.”

“I was very impressed and I knew at that point too, when you have a regional orchestra playing perhaps well above the level you might expect, I knew that had a lot to do with the music director, too, because of the musical qualities the music director instills. I learned that was true with Mr. Dixon and it’s true with Mark, too – to maintain that. It’s no easy job to maintain and improve any orchestra’s standard of playing.”

The QCSO returns to the Adler Theatre Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Centennial Hall at Augustana College on Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, visit qcso.org.

Formerly the arts and entertainment reporter for The Dispatch/Rock Island Argus and Quad-City Times, Jonathan Turner now writes freelance for WVIK and QuadCities.com. He has experience writing for daily newspapers for 32 years and has expertise across a wide range of subject areas, including government, politics, education, the arts, economic development, historic preservation, business, and tourism. He loves writing about music and the arts, as well as a multitude of other topics including features on interesting people, places, and organizations. He has a passion for accompanying musicals, singers, choirs, and instrumentalists. He even wrote his own musical based on The Book of Job, which premiered at Playcrafters in 2010. He wrote a 175-page history book about downtown Davenport, which was published by The History Press in 2016. Turner was honored in 2009 to be among 24 arts journalists nationwide to take part in a 10-day fellowship offered by the National Endowment for the Arts in New York City on classical music and opera, based at Columbia University’s journalism school.