The Classical Station’s interview with Garrick Ohlsson for Preview!

Interview with Garrick Ohlsson
by Bethany Tillerson (Photo credit: Dario Acosta)

Classical pianist Garrick Ohlssohn appears this week on Preview! to speak with Rob Kennedy about his newest recording, The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos, completed with the Grand Teton Festival Orchestra and conducted by Sir Donald Runnicles.

KENNEDY: Garrick Ohlsson, tell our listeners about studying with the famed pianist Claudio Arrau. 

OHLSSON: I didn’t really study with him for very long. It was two summers, the summer of 73 and the summer of 74, and I had roughly 12 sessions with him. It was a hyper intense experience for many reasons; to him, no detail was too small, no concept was too large to be considered. He didn’t want to do remedial work with me; most of our sessions had less to do with musical content than understanding. 

First of all, in those days, he would teach usually about one lesson a day when he wanted to, and he was incredibly intense. The session lasted 2 hours each, and he did not phone it in. He paid attention to everything, including how you were fingering and your musical principles. He didn’t teach an interpretation, and he never demonstrated to me or any students. He was absolutely against that. 

He was much more concerned with seeing that I understood the concept. In Beethoven’s first concerto’s second movement, there’s a return of the theme which is almost bel canto. So there are a few things going on–there’s a tune, there’s a bassline noted as marcato, and there’s the middle-texture voices. We worked on these eight bars of music for probably half an hour, and after two hours we were both exhausted, but Arrau said he was satisfied that I understood the idea. 

He said, “You’re good enough that you can make it sound good anyway, but please learn to master it this way—not only because it’s what Beethoven wrote, but it will give you a whole range of tools and technical abilities and musical thoughts that will be with you for the rest of your life. So even if you choose not to do it this way, you will have learned a lot.” So in other words, it wasn’t about coaching me for a particular performance or learning to do it a particular way. He wanted to see that I understood the music at the deepest level. I hope that’s a good explanation because I think most listeners who admire him feel that there was a great depth to everything he did, a very passionate and a very beautiful and convincing way of interpreting, not at all superficial or going just on charm or mere effect. So I hope that more or less describes him a little bit. 

KENNEDY: That gives us a wonderful musical portrait of the man. Thank you so much. Garrick, take our listeners behind the scenes and tell us what it was like working with Sir Donald Runnicles and the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra in recording the five Beethoven piano concerti. 

OHLSSON: In 2020, we were going to celebrate Beethoven’s anniversary by playing the five Beethoven concertos. Sir Donald requested that we do them all in one weekend of concerts. I said we would. I’ve played most of these pieces over a hundred times in my life. And although you don’t get casual about such great music, once you play The Emperor over 100 times, that’s enough to know what to do, whereas the first time you do it, you don’t even know if you can. When you’ve done it repeatedly, you begin to know where you can take it easy and where your strong points and weak points are. So I felt very confident. 

Orchestras have to produce their own recordings one way or the other, so the Grand Teton Festival made this possible. That week we recorded every single rehearsal, every single performance, and had a couple of sessions as well after the concerts. In any live performance, even the best you’ve ever heard,  when you listen carefully there’ll be some things that you wish weren’t there. I don’t only mean wrong notes, but noise in the hall or a note slightly out of tune, or even a wrong entrance. So you want to be able to cover that pretty well, and that’s why everything was recorded. So it was a very intense week–it was quite exhausting, as a matter of fact, because we had so many rehearsals and we had two performances to cover an enormous amount of material. 

But I was also confident in my relationship with Donald. The first time we played together was in 1985. He was the director of the San Francisco Opera and I’d heard him many times, because that’s where I live. We’ve worked together plenty of times, so I felt musically very secure with him. We didn’t really have any conceptual issues of significance. In other words, when the soloist and the conductor got together to discuss what we were going to do, it wasn’t like a big Hollywood film where the maestro says, “This is an intolerable tempo. I can’t work this way,” or vice versa. Most music-making isn’t a bad film. Most music-making is very cooperative. And we discovered that we had plenty of affinity when working on all of these pieces. 

We just worked like crazy and did the best we could. I’m very happy with the result. The orchestra is fantastic; many of the players are some of the best players from some of the best orchestras in the world. It was a wonderful experience.

KENNEDY: Garrick, thank you for providing one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had recently and wonderful insights into the music. Thank you so much for sharing this with our listeners. 

Join us for the full interview on Sunday, August 20th, at 7 p.m. Listen on, on 89.7 FM, or on our app!