World-famous pianist Garrick Ohlsson visits Northwestern

Madeline Burg, Reporter


This week, world-famous pianist Garrick Ohlsson visited campus for a three-day series of events at the Bienen School of Music.

Ohlsson led a piano master class Monday where three Bienen doctoral students performed pieces by Beethoven and Chopin. On Tuesday, students perform a trio by Beethoven in a chamber music master class led by Ohlsson, and Wednesday at noon, a Q&A session with Ohlsson was moderated by Prof. James Giles, the director of Music Performance Graduate Studies for Bienen.

“Garrick Ohlsson is one of the top pianists performing around the world these days,” Giles said. “That’s why it’s a special opportunity for us to have him here and to interact with him. He’s not a teacher by profession, but his teaching with our students has been unusually perceptive and helpful and very honest.”

Last March, Ohlsson received the 2014 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance, an award made possible in part by a Northwestern graduate’s donation to Bienen. Ohlsson received a monetary reward and must spend two or three nonconsecutive weeks in residency at the music school.

Ohlsson is an expert on the music of Frederic Chopin, a Polish composer of the Romantic period known for uniting meticulous technique with emotional expression. As well as repertoire from the Romantic period, Ohlsson focuses on works by Classical composers including Beethoven and Schubert.

Sean Yeh and Jialiang Wu, doctoral students in Bienen, were two of the three performers at Monday’s master class, a chance for music students to be coached by a professional in front of an audience.

“He’s very smart and very talented and the philosophy he was talking about was really insightful,” said Yeh, who was impressed with Ohlsson’s ability to the incorporate the audience. “A lot of times in master classes, the pianist is not so good at speaking to the audience. (Ohlsson) was just really good at explaining and talking about the music with everyone, sharing all of his insights and his knowledge.”

According to Wu, there were some good performances at the master class.

“Apparently, Mr. Ohlsson was impressed by the level of playing in general,” said Wu, who had performed at a previous master class at a different institution with Ohlsson. “We chatted a little bit afterwards and he did remember that I took a master class with him.”

At the Q&A on Wednesday, Ohlsson, a tall bespectacled man who had no problem leaping from his chair to demonstrate things at the piano, enthusiastically regaled the audience with personal anecdotes about his relationships with other major figures in the piano world, as well as giving practical advice  — “hot tips” as he called them — about being a musician.

Bienen senior Lara Saldanha was pleasantly surprised by Ohlsson’s folksiness.

“Musicians spend a lot of time practicing, and sometimes even the really great ones are not the most engaging speakers, but (Ohlsson) is so engaging,” Saldanha said. “It was a wonderful mix of him speaking so anecdotally and being so open to talk about his experiences in the past and his teachers.”

Giles agreed that the less formal setting was a unique opportunity.

“It’s good for the students to see these well-known people in a more casual atmosphere, because usually you see them and they’re up on stage and you’re down here, but here, (Ohlsson) is just talking about his own life and you realize you have some things in common,” Giles said.

Saldanha said she appreciated Ohlsson’s candor.

“One of the things that kind of stuck with me that (Ohlsson) said was that when you play a piece, you have to be in love with it to make it convincing,” she said.

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