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Friday, November 07, 2008
92Y Q&A with Pianist Garrick Ohlsson

On Saturday, November 15, at 8 pm, the 92nd Street Y will present Garrick Ohlsson in a recital devoted entirely to the works of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), as part of the Y’s Masters of the Keyboard and Russian Evolutions series. In this conversation with the 92nd Street Y, Mr. Ohlsson explains his connections with Scriabin, his attraction to the composer’s music and how he designed the program.

Garrick, you have appeared on the great stages of the world giving recitals of all-Chopin, all-Beethoven, all-Schubert—the great masters of the canon. But all-Scriabin?  Many audience members barely know who he is. Why are you devoting a full evening to his music?
First of all, for me, Alexander Scriabin is one of the great composers. He is indeed part of the Western canon, even if he isn’t played as often as he should be. I certainly have played lots of Scriabin in my life. What’s more, when I was a boy in White Plains, I came into Manhattan to hear the greatest pianists of the century in recital, and virtually all of them played Scriabin–Horowitz, Rubinstein, Gilels, Richter, Ashkenazy. It never occurred to me that Scriabin was something one would not do. Yet, you’re right, he’s become a hard sell now – composers can fall in and out of fashion.

So how did the idea for this recital come about?
Through two people, really. First, while I was at Ravinia, I talked with its President Welz Kaufman about possible projects, and we discussed Scriabin. Then [the 92nd Street Y’s director of music and literary programming] Hanna Arie-Gaifman began enticing me to come back to the Y. I hadn’t been here since 2000, and in our conversations, she mentioned her plans for a focus on Russian culture of 1900.  A Scriabin recital would fit perfectly, so we made plans. Eventually I developed a 2008 recital program with Scriabin plus Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff (for the marquee value), but for the Y, I’m giving a full evening of Scriabin. I think New York audiences are sophisticated enough to handle it.

At the beginning of his career, Scriabin was called the “Russian Chopin.” Why is that, and are those similarities partly why he so appeals to you, as one of today’s definitive interpreters of Chopin?
First, of all, like Chopin, Scriabin wrote almost exclusively for the piano. There are a few orchestra works, Poem of Ecstasy being perhaps the most well known, but virtually his entire output was for the keyboard, which also helps to explain his relative obscurity. He also continually used the same forms as Chopin, such as the sonata, prelude and etude. Definitely in the first period of his career, Scriabin was a classicist like Chopin.  Like Chopin he kept tight control of the structures of his works.  Even the musical language he used was very Chopin-esque.

So I take it something changed in the second period?
Yes, indeed. Scriabin kept his structures but began to fill them with perfume and moonlight. His music became magical, even mystical. He became a pioneer in pulling away from traditional tonalities, and his music started to explode in color. It became more and more emotional and exciting – hair-raisingly exciting. As we’ve noted, Scriabin can be a hard sell, and concert sponsors have been wary of programming him.  Yet whenever I include a set of Scriabin works, almost always that set becomes the hit of the night because it is precisely so unexpectedly exciting.

Sounds like a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Why then isn’t he the success story that his contemporaries Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev are?
For one thing, over time his music became hyper-exciting, hyper-intense, hyper-emotional, some would say hyper-neurotic. That can be thrilling for some, but too much for others. He’s definitely foie gras in a generally meat-and-potatoes world.

His mystical philosophies definitely make some people uncomfortable. His art became increasingly visionary, if not grandiose.  Over time he saw himself as a savior and believed his final work, Mysterium, which was to be performed in the Himalayas, would transform music, if not the entire world. There is also such a dramatic change in his musical language. As I said, he started Chopin-esque, but by the end he was atonal – not along the lines of Schoenberg, but closer to Debussy, Bartók or Stravinsky. So with Scriabin you can never be sure what you’re going to get.

There’s one more reason why his music isn’t performed more often – it’s hideously difficult. Of course, other composers are exceptionally challenging too, even peers like Rachmaninoff. Yet Scriabin requires a particularly exceptional level of pianistic ability, because with Scriabin, you can’t reach the beauty of his music until you’ve gotten past its difficulty. Only after you’ve met the technical challenges can you find the perfume and poetry.

With such a creative range and with so many different works to draw from, how did you decide on the selections for your Y recital program?
I talked with Hanna about this, and we both agreed not to take the scholarly approach, like putting everything in chronological order or outlining Scriabin’s musical development. Instead, I’ve tried to weave a carpet that invites people to discover the language, the poetry and the flavor of his music.

For example, the program will open with a grouping of early works – they’re miniatures, a little brooding, very Chopin-esque, and include the particularly beautiful Second Sonata that I think will draw the audience in. Once I have them, I’ll go right to some of his late works, including Desir.

The key is keeping the flow smooth and interesting. To do that I’ll alternate moods, keys, textures and characters. Sometimes it’s just pure intuition—an indefinable sense of what pieces sound good next to each other. It’s the same care I take with my Chopin cycles:  vary the sound to keep the palate as fresh as possible.

You’ve chosen twelve works. Do you have a particular favorite we should listen for?
Yes, Sonata No. 5, which ends the concert. It’s Scriabin at his purest. No piece is more hair-raisingly exciting for me. Once I get started, the music starts playing me instead of me playing the music.  While you look at me onstage, you may think I’m in control, but inside I’m careening through the music, wondering if I can hang on to the end. That’s why I love Scriabin so much.

[Garrick Ohlsson, piano: 11/15/08]

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