Sure hands touch the heart

22 June 2023

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has been wowing audiences around the world for almost 60 years and this concert is no exception. Bourby Webster savours every moment. 

Garrick Ohlsson, Musica Viva 
Perth Concert Hall, 19 June 2023 

Monday nights aren’t meant for evenings out, especially in winter. They’re more for MasterChef on TV. Yet New York-born pianist Garrick Ohlsson gives me good reason to emerge from the cocoon. 

Ohlsson, who won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1970 at just 22, is touring Australia for Musica Viva, performing two different programs featuring absolute giants of the repertoire: works by Schubert, Liszt, Barber, Scriabin and, of course, Chopin. Only virtuoso musicians at the top of their game can even attempt these works, so fiendishly challenging are they on both a technical and musical level. 

A tall, stately gentleman, Ohlsson enters the stage carefully, almost cautiously. He has walked out onto stages across the world for almost 60 years. I am overwhelmed by a wave of emotion as soon as his large jellyfish-like hands hover above the keys, fingers dangling daintily, as a rolling cascade of notes pours out like a waterfall of thousands of colours.  

There is nothing cautious or careful about this performance – this is wonderful abandon and joy. Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque L.75 is a lyrical feast of moods, colours and tempi, sometimes wistful, sometimes playful, notes surging through exquisite melodies and harmonies. The famous Clair de Lune 3rd movement is one of the most celebrated piano works ever written, and Ohlsson’s rendition reaches into my core, almost painful in its beauty. 

Garrick Ohlsson has been thrilling audiences for almost 60 years: Photo: Lyndon Mechielsen

By comparison, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata in E-flat minor. Op.26 is robust and strong, requiring a commanding presence. The 3rd movement makes use of the entire keyboard and is, in parts, almost scary. The climactic fugal 4th movement is a text-book example of stamina and concentration.  

After the interval, Ohlsson addresses the audience. He is warm, engaging and funny. He notes the next work, Convocations, a new commission by young Tasmanian pianist and composer Thomas Mission, took more time to prepare than the rest of the programs combined.  

“With new music you don’t know what you’re going to get,” he notes, drawing laughter from the audience. “Even Beethoven wrote some losers.” I find it hard to connect to the work with its challenging tonality, yet there is no doubt it holds its own alongside the greats.  

Ohlsson closes with Chopin’s Variations brilliants Op.12, Piano Sonata No. 1 in C minor Op.4, and Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op.31. Something profound washes over me. I am listening to someone who has been playing these pieces for longer than I’ve been alive. It is almost as if Ohlsson isn’t thinking of anything as he sits, almost motionless, at the keyboard. His hands have a life of their own; the beauty of the music – impeccably played, placed, and timed – flows from somewhere so deeply within him that it cannot be thought, only conveyed.  

The physical demands of this program cannot be overstated, yet I get the impression that Ohlsson could play on all night. I’m so happy he drew me away from the home comforts of MasterChef. Hearing one of the greatest pianists of the 20th and 21st centuries perform live in my home city is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. And one I will not forget in a hurry. 

Chopin’s Piano, Musica Viva’s next concert, is at Perth Concert Hall on 24 July 2023

Pictured top: Pianist Garrick Ohlsson plays music only true virtuosos can attempt. Photo: Lyndon Mechielsen

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the director of North Street Music – a creative production and artist development company. She is also the founder of Perth Symphony Orchestra. She is a graduate of Oxford University, the Royal College of Music and has an MBA from UWA. She is a professional violist, entrepreneur, concert promoter and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

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