Sarasota Orchestra soloist got an early start with Rachmaninoff piano concerto

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Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a guest artist with the Sarasota Orchestra for the concert “Ohlsson plays Rachmaninoff.”
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a guest artist with the Sarasota Orchestra for the concert “Ohlsson plays Rachmaninoff.”

Editor's Note: On Jan. 3, the Sarasota Orchestra announced that due to a COVID exposure, conductor Jeffrey Kahane is not available to travel to Sarasota to lead next weekend’s concerts. He will be replaced by two-time Grammy Award winner David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra.

So, is Rachmaninoff’s towering Piano Concerto No. 3 “fiendishly difficult,” as the Sarasota Orchestra’s website describes next weekend’s concert?

“In a word, yes,” said Garrick Ohlsson, the pianist who will join forces with guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane and the full orchestra to perform the infamous “Rach 3.” “It was written by one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. He was a towering virtuoso; he wrote it for himself. There was nothing a pianist could do that he couldn’t do.”

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Enrolled at the Juilliard School at age 13, Ohlsson first encountered the Rach 3 in New York City, hearing Jerome Lowenthal perform under the baton of the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

He was “very surprised” when he was 15 and his piano teacher instructed him to learn the concerto over the summer, telling him, “If you learn it now, you’ll never be afraid of it.” It didn’t hurt that he was already 6-feet-2-inches tall and had the big hands helpful in large-scale piano works.

Since then, the award-winning Ohlsson has performed it dozens of times, perhaps as many as a hundred, including at least one previous performance in Sarasota.

“It’s more a beloved favorite,” he said. “I now know it so well it’s part of my hard drive.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote the concerto in 1909 and dedicated it to another giant of the piano, his good friend Josef Hofmann, who for reasons unknown never played it. Vladimir Horowitz made it a signature work in the 1930s, and the concerto became part of popular culture with the 1996 movie “Shine,” in which John Gielgud described it as a mega monster piece.

Ohlsson joined Kirill Gerstein for a duo piano performance and conversation in February for the Sarasota Concert Association, which included a different Rachmaninoff piece, the “Symphonic Dances.”

Jeffrey Kahane is artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival.
Jeffrey Kahane is artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival.

The Sarasota Orchestra concerts will be led by Kahane, who served as artistic advisor to the orchestra during the period before the arrival of Music Director Designate Bramwell Tovey, and now is music director for the orchestra’s Sarasota Music Festival.

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The two have worked together before.

“He has been one of the pianists, and musicians, I most admire,” said Kahane. “He’s been a hero of mine for a very long time. So when the Sarasota Orchestra invited me to conduct this program and said Garrick was going to be the soloist, I was over the moon about it.”

The program also includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which “is a piece that has been very close to my heart for a long time,” said Kahane.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a guest artist with the Sarasota Orchestra.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a guest artist with the Sarasota Orchestra.

“What I love about this is (the program) provides two very different takes on the Romantic spirit. These are both deeply Romantic pieces but coming from completely different places,” he said.

Brahms writes with the spirit of a Romantic but also with the specific kind of attention to formal detail as a Classical composer. His models were Mozart, Haydn, Schubert. He lived until 1897, at which time Rachmaninoff was a very young man. There’s always this wonderful tension in Brahms’ music between the Classicist and the real Romantic. It makes for a wonderful foil for the Rachmaninoff, which is first of all very Russian, as Russian as could be.”

Ohlsson Plays Rachmaninoff

Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks. 8 p.m. Jan. 7 and 8, 2:30 p.m. Jan. 9, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets $35-$98. Classical Conversation with Jeffrey Kahane, 10:30 a.m. Jan. 6, Holley Hall, Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, 709 N. Tamiami Trail. Tickets $11 advance, $16 at the door. 941-953-3434; sarasotaorchestra.org

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson talks challenge of Rachmaninoff concerto