GTMF - Garrick Ohlsson

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson — still the only American to have won the International Chopin Competition and a recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize — returns to the Grand Teton Music Festival this week.

Within two weeks of starting piano at the age of 8, playing was all Garrick Ohlsson wanted to do.

“I wasn’t practicing,” he said, speaking from the Tanglewood Festival in western Massachusetts. “It was play. It was something I wanted to do, something I was good at. Success excited me.”

Youthful enthusiasm led to an international career that, after 50 years, shows no sign of fading.

Ohlsson returns to the Grand Teton Music Festival for four nights of performances, including a solo recital tonight and performances of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 9 on Friday and Saturday, the closing weekend for the Festival Orchestra, with Music Director Donald Runnicles conducting.

“We have mutual friends,” he said of Runnicles. “We had met socially several times and then worked together in the U.S. and Europe.”

Two summers ago, Denis Kozhukhin was slated to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Festival Orchestra, but he ran into visa problems. Not many people can at a moment’s notice fill in to play the notoriously virtuosic piece. Fortunately Runnicles knew one of them: Ohlsson, who has at his command some 80 concertos.

Well-known for his interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven, Ohlsson also has toured and recorded the work of era-bridging composers such as Ferruccio Busoni and Alexander Scriabin as well as contemporaries who have written specifically for him. He attributes his vast repertoire to having a quick memory.

“It’s not photographic,” he said, “but I memorize better than many people.”

In addition, he said, he has been fortunate to have worked with many great teachers who recognized his talent, encouraged him to stretch and grow, ushered him into the Juilliard School, and taught him the importance of balancing the emotional and intellectual aspects of music. Each also introduced him to different parts of the piano repertoire.

“Music is a vast field,” he said, “so, yes indeed, [each teacher] introduced me to a lot.”

Ohlsson will bring to Jackson a few slices from across the world of piano music, performing J.S. Bach, Karol Szymanowski and Frederic Chopin tonight, Scriabin on Thursday, and Mozart on Friday and Saturday.

“Szymanowski is an underrated composer,” he said. “His time may not have come yet for the public.”

But the pianist was in his time (1882-1937) considered one of Poland’s most famous musicians. Influenced by the late romantic and French impressionist composers, he developed a signature style that included polytonality and atonality but that nevertheless remained expressive and melodic.

His Sonata No. 3, which Ohlsson will perform tonight, is “an exciting, bustlingly difficult piece,” he said. “It’s always changing ... and hard as heck for the pianist.”

On Thursday Ohlsson will present a few of the hundreds of piano pieces the colorful, mystical Scriabin (1871-1915) penned as part of a program that will be recorded and broadcast later in the year by the popular American Public Media radio program “Performance Today.”

Fred Child, PT’s charismatic host, called Ohlsson “one my favorite pianists on the planet.”

“It’s going to be a highlight of my year,” he said.

Ohlsson said Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9, subtitled “Jeunehomme,” which he will play Friday and Saturday, is an early work, written when the composer was 21, but “is considered to be his first absolute full-fledged masterpiece.”

“It has great emotional depth,” he said — a “truly tragic” slow movement, a joyful finale and, in the middle, an unusual minuet for the soloist, written in a different key from the rest of the piece.

“It would have set the Viennese on their ear,” he said, pondering audience reaction of the late 1770s.

The weekend’s final orchestral program of the season will start with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” practically the unofficial national anthem of Britain, and will end with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter,” the genius’ last symphony and the festival’s last nod to its solar eclipse-inspired celestial theme of the summer.

Contact Richard Anderson at 732-7078, rich@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGbiz.

Since moving to Jackson Hole in 1992, Richard has covered everything from local government and criminal justice to sports and features. He currently concentrates on arts and entertainment, heading up the Scene section.

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