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Ohlsson in orbit

Pianist wows festival crowd
by Christopher Key

It’s no wonder Garrick Ohlsson is such a masterful pianist. His physical stature terrifies the instrument into submission before he even touches the keyboard. He’s a long-time favorite here in Bellingham, having performed with the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra as well as the Bellingham Festival of Music.

Tonight’s festivities got underway with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048. Maestro Michael Palmer is a genius at matching his gifted musicians to the requirements of the piece. For this one, he used a traditional group of trios: violins, violas and cellos along with a bass and harpsichord. The sound is quintessentially Bach. As Dr. Ed Rutschman mentions in his program notes, this concerto takes its structural cues from Vivaldi, whom Bach greatly admired. Knowing that going in, the influence seems obvious. If anything Bach ever wrote could be described as sprightly, this concerto fits the definition. The musicians, as always, were superb.

Palmer than added some more strings and the necessary woodwinds for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Winds in E-flat major, K. 279B. Four festival favorites were featured: Joseph Robinson, oboe; Laura Ardan, clarinet; Robert Williams, bassoon; and Brice Andrus, horn. The four engaged in a lively musical conversation, trading licks back and forth like a jazz combo and merrily Mozarted their way to the first standing ovation of the evening.

The aforementioned Mr. Ohlsson took the stage following intermission and when he does that, the stage is seriously taken. His six-four frame powers an enormous set of hands that can span an octave-and-a-half. The truly astonishing thing about those massive hands is how graceful and sensitive they can be when he plays. His imposing presence also caused a bit of comic relief when someone slipped up and forgot to adjust his piano bench. The audience got a good giggle as Ohlsson frantically lowered the bench a foot or so in order to get his legs under the keyboard.

Photo credit - Paul Body

Photo credit – Paul Body

Ohlsson’s career was launched in 1970 when he won the prestigious Chopin Competition in Warsaw, the first American to do so. He has maintained a strong association with the Polish master and has recorded the complete piano works. What I find astounding is that he has more than 80 works in his repertoire, a mnemonic feat that exceeds his physical presence.

Tonight’s show-stopper was Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. The concerto opens quietly enough with just the piano and solo horn. But soon, the full orchestra joins the fun and the laws of musical physics cease to exist. Ohlsson’s fingers blur into another dimension and the audience is transported to a galaxy far, far away. The concert grand, terrified into submission from the start, was visibly shaken by the experience. But Ohlsson gave it an affectionate pat at the end.

The audience leapt to its feet so fast that they nearly took the seats with them and wouldn’t let Ohlsson go until he had performed an encore. Naturally enough, he chose a Chopin piece, the Waltz in C-sharp minor. This work is so familiar, yet it became fresh again in the hands of a master.

The festival is sold out the rest of the way except for the final Three Sopranos concert featuring Heidi Grant Murphy, Katie Van Kooten and Frederica von Stade. For tickets to that event, call the Mount Baker Theatre box office at 360-734-6080 or order online at the MBT website.

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