Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A World Premiere with Ohlsson, Gilbert, and the BSO

Garrick Ohlsson wears a concert suit and plays the piano. He is in a white room, playing next to a window where light is pouring in.
Dario Acosta
Garrick Ohlsson

Saturday, September 16th, 2023
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast, Alan Gilbert conducts the Boston Symphony in a program that includes Dvořák’s glittering Carnival Overture and the world premiere of Justin Dello Joio’s Piano Concerto, Oceans Apart, with soloist Garrick Ohlsson.

Alan Gilbert, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Lili BOULANGER D’un Matin de Printemps
Wilhelm STENHAMMAR Serenade
Justin DELLO JOIO Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Oceans Apart (world premiere)
Antonín DVOŘÁK Carnival Overture

This concert was originally broadcast on January 14th, 2023 and is no longer available on demand.

To hear a preview of the program with conductor Alan Gilbert, listen with the audio player above and read the transcript in the tab below. To hear an interview with pianist Garrick Ohlsson, listen with the audio player below and read the transcript in the tab below:

Garrick Ohlsson interview
Garrick Ohlsson interview, Jan. 11, 2023


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Garrick Ohlsson, back at the BSO for the world premiere performances of Justin Dello Joio's Oceans Apart. Garrick, thanks a lot for your time today. I appreciate it.

Garrick Ohlsson It's a pleasure, Brian. Nice to be here. And nice to be in Boston, as always.

Brian McCreath Well, tell me about your first encounters with Justin's music. His dad was a great composer, actually, someone whom I know through his, Norman Dello Joio's trumpet music, which I used to play. But tell me about your encounter with Justin's music and what first grabbed your attention about it.

Garrick Ohlsson Well, like all things, it was accidental. I was working with a colleague, a musician colleague, who just happened to say, this was back in the late seventies, who said, "I have a young composer who I think is really pretty good." And so he told me the name, and of course, I thought it was Norman Dello Joio, who was still alive. And he said, "No, it's Justin." And so, probably by the early eighties I got an LP from this friend, and I probably put it on the shelf and didn't pay much attention. But then, you know, I began to listen to it, and I have a very intuitive response to new music. I don't look for any "isms." I never have. I just want to hear what I would call a voice. And I listened to the recording. I liked it fairly much, and then I found that I listened to it again and again and again. So I really liked it. And so, I meant to get in touch with Justin, so then, you know, like all good ideas, that took about a couple of years before I actually made the contact. And I said, you know, sort of, "Hello, nice to meet you. What have you written for piano?" And so on. And he had written this wonderful piano sonata, which I then learned and played a number of times and recorded. And also that he wrote two other fine études, which I recorded on the same CD of his music on Bridge [record label]. And that's kind of the story.

And then, in one of my visits in Boston quite a while back, I gave Tony Fogg, the Artistic Administrator of the Boston Symphony, a copy of the disc, and then, probably yet again a couple of years later, he probably said, "Well, what do you think about the idea of a piano concerto from Justin, that would be a BSO commission?" I said, "Oh, twist my arm, yeah, of course, I would love to do that." But then, fate did intervene in the story because Justin had some terrific health difficulties, which, happily, are very much in the past. But that sort of postponed things quite some several years before things got ready. So, here we are in 2023 with a premiere that maybe should have occurred a little while ago. But anyway, we're very happy that it's here now.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. So I'm especially curious, though, you say that when you hear new music, you're not looking for "isms," you're looking for "voice." Is there any way, independent of the concerto you're playing for this world premiere, but is there any general way that you can encapsulate some words about Justin's voice that you hear in his music?

Garrick Ohlsson Ah. Okay, I'll give it a try. You know, don't hold me, don't take me to court on this. I found that I like the fact that it's atonal music that doesn't make me feel like I'm alienated. Look, there's all kinds of 12-tone music, too, some of which I love very much. But there's nothing dry or academic about it. It seems to be pulsating. It seems to be full of texture, full of dynamics, full of range. In this case of this piece, brilliant interaction of the orchestra and piano. I would say that for a person who's never heard it before, the drama of the piece, whereby I mean the drama, I don't... Words like drama and narrative in music are hard to define, but you can tell more or less what's going on, even the first time through, I think. And the orchestra and piano have a relationship in where they cooperate and where they fight. And the large shapes of his music are always very, very clear. I mean, I contradict myself because I believe the first movement of the Piano Sonata is a Theme and Variations, I believe, in which the theme is a 12-tone row. Well, so he can do that, too. But it doesn't, it just sounds powerful and awesome rather than "academic." But this piece is not, it's based a lot on the diabolic interval as the tritone, which is a very unstable interval, the "Devil's Interval." [sings] Which used to be forbidden in music until when, you know, 1500 or something. The church wouldn't allow it. So it's got lots of that. It's got tremendous range of virtuosity and lyricism of.. Lyricism not quite a successor to the Rachmaninoff / Samuel Barber school of lyricism. But it's not all crash-bang at all. It's very moody and colorful. So I hope some of those words help the first time listener to hear it a little bit better.

The most important thing to know is it is about 20 minutes long. That's the most important thing to know about any piece you don't know, even if it's by a standard, famous, long-gone composer because you set your sights differently. For example, let's say you, well, these days in good concert halls, they don't even let you in late, which is good to a degree. But let's say you just managed to squeak in the door without looking at the program, and you just sat in one of the last rows in the back because the usher said, "sit down and be quiet, please." And you hear a little string tremolo in the high strings, you know, kind of transparent. It could be a Delius prelude, or it could be a Bruckner symphony. And the prelude might last 2 minutes and the symphony might last 80. And you will set yourself for the journey very differently, you know, just as if you're driving, or rather flying from, I don't know, what's a short flight from here, to Concord, New Hampshire, is a lot different than flying to Tokyo. You know, you set your whole expectation differently. So length is very important.

Brian McCreath That's incredibly wise. I'm so glad you articulated that, because that's an experience that audiences have that nobody ever talks about, that we do need to know how long these things are. It does affect how you enter into a piece of music and what you're kind of prepared for, even if you know nothing about the music.

But aside from that, I do feel, having just heard this music in a rehearsal for the first time, that you're right, that this does not present itself in any "ism" way. It doesn't present itself in any dry way. It is very dramatic without getting into a story or narrative, as you say. But it does strike me as visceral music in a way. It seems ferociously difficult on your end, not that that's ever seemed to dissuade you from any music at all. But is that the case? And to what end does that technique play into what the music really does?

Garrick Ohlsson Well, I would say it's, of course, it's difficult. It's a piano concerto written for a virtuoso pianist who plays things like the Rachmaninoff Third [Concerto] and the Busoni [Concerto] and the Bartók Second [Concerto]. It is not actually more challenging than those pieces, on a pianistic level. It's new, so it doesn't have that safe, familiar feel yet, not that the Rachmaninoff Third ever feels quite safe. But no, I think the piano virtuosity is quite standard in this piece. It's definitely, he's definitely in that case the era of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, in terms of making the piano sound and ring and it's grateful writing, and I feel that the piano isn't ever really smothered, although there's a question about what, you know, a couple of bars toward the end. But that's okay. Happens in Rachmaninoff, too, because sometimes that's the music, that's the intention of the music, where the orchestra should be overwhelming, because, you know, after all, the soloist isn't always meant to be picked up by the soloist microphone on a fine recording like we've been doing for the last hundred years.

But in any case, yeah, I would say, how can I put it? It's definitely for grown-up, really accomplished pianists. It's not, you know, kids shouldn't try this at home without an adult present. But no, it's not fearsomely difficult in that way. I mean, it's not easy by any means. For the pianists in the audience, I'll just do it shorthand, and say, if you can play the Rachmaninoff Third, and then you've just learned the Rachmaninoff Second, you'll discover it's easier than the Rachmaninoff Third, although it's still terribly difficult. And if all you've ever played is the Haydn D major, the Rachmaninoff Second will seem impossible. But, you know, that's the way life goes. So it's written, but I can't imagine any of my distinguished, well-known colleagues who visit the BSO couldn't play this.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. Well, in a little bit of a left turn, I want to take you to the past now, because the last time you were around the BSO, I'll put it that way, was at Tanglewood last summer where you did the complete Brahms solo piano music, one of the, I think, highlights of the Tanglewood season, truly. And I just wonder, I know you've played Brahms for years and I wonder if that experience: all of the complete solo piano music, for concerts in, I think two weeks or ten days something like that...

Garrick Ohlsson Two weeks.

Brian McCreath Two weeks. What did that teach you about Brahms that maybe you hadn't expected? What was the experience like for you to live so deeply into that for such a concentrated time?

Garrick Ohlsson Well, you just asked me a big question. I'm going to give you a longish answer. It taught me that one shouldn't really do that.

Brian McCreath That's a short answer.

Garrick Ohlsson But it is possible. And I think I did it mostly pretty well. The whole project of doing all of Brahms came to me when I was a kid, and there were LP records back in the sixties, and Julius Katchen, the American pianist, who had recorded all of Brahms on eight LPs. And my little calculating mind already figured that a piano recital is about two LPs worth of music. And I thought, Well, that's pretty convenient. Eight LPs. That would be four recitals. And lo and behold, Julius Katchen showed up in New York and played the complete Brahms in four recitals. And I was always a Brahms freak. And I always loved Brahms very much. And I didn't actually hear him do those, unfortunately. But I thought, what a wonderful idea. And I thought, if I'm ever a real pianist, I'll try to do that because people do like Brahms and he's great. And there's, in all of those published opuses - the whole question of complete is complicated because there's all sorts of stuff in the appendix and so on - but of the published opuses is that he declared to be his solo piano music, there's really very, very little music, almost none that isn't of at least very good quality. I mean, it's not all his greatest pieces, because no composer can do that. But the level of inspiration and craftsmanship is high. Brahms was very conscious about his legacy. So, therefore, you don't have any dross to deal with which is good. But the whole project actually took real shape... It was, it got born in 2018. I had it rationally laid out. I would play four programs, but one in the fall of 2018 and all four programs would be done in San Francisco, where I live, New York, Montreal and London, so that you'd sort of amortize the work. And then, you know, individual recital series might pick up a program here and there, which did happen. And so in the fall of '18, I did program one, and in the spring of '19, program two, in the fall of '19, program three, and in the spring of '20, program four. But it never happened because we know why. You know, I was planning on it and it was a month away and suddenly COVID happened. And that was the end of a lot of things as we knew them. So I never got to play program four, although I was certainly ready to do it.

And of course, the other question is how much of this had I known and how much of it did I have to learn? Probably about half, roughly, of the music I had never played in concert. I had read it all. I had heard people play it. I had even studied some of it. But, you know, that's quite a lot to catch up on. But when it's laid out rationally, it's fine. So if I hadn't had those experiences of the first three, in other words, had a real backlog of experience, I never could have done it at Tanglewood this summer. But it was supposed to happen, oh, by the way, in the summer of 2020 at Tanglewood. And then Tony Fogg was unable to schedule it for 2021 because that meant he would have had to kick out some people who were already scheduled. And at that point, nobody knew what was happening post-COVID anyway. So he said, Let's just do it in 2022. So I said, Deal.

And so what did it teach me? It sort of finally led me to the feeling that I'd, you know, drunk the last of the bottle. There is something unbelievable about doing that much of one composer's music, because you really get into the DNA, the genetic fingerprint of the composer, and you get to know them better and better and better. But in the case of a great composer like Brahms, or like Chopin or Beethoven or any of those, you never come to the end. You just know a lot more than you knew. I can't say I have a definitive vision of how they should be. I mean, you know, and that changes regularly. But still, there's, you get to know the voice and the language and the feelings of a composer. And I just felt that it was so incredibly, deeply rewarding and beautiful and exciting. And, also, the public and I got to experience certain pieces that are not so standard. You know, the piano literature is so big that, you know, you're always hearing comments, even among professionals, Well, why doesn't anybody play the Opus 116, Number Five Intermezzo? Well, I don't know, but I don't believe that nobody plays it. It's just that it's not big on the hit parade, you know? So then you hear it and you discover that, wow, it's a little masterpiece of a different kind. And it doesn't do very well standalone because it's a little gloomy and it's a little bit, you know, it's quite introverted and somewhat gloomy and somewhat down and quite beautiful and very touching. But, no, you're not going to actually come out after a triumphant recital and play that piece by itself because it will, it might kill the mood. Whereas in between the two pieces that he wrote it between, it's absolutely beautiful.

Brian McCreath Fantastic. That's great. I mean, I imagine that having gone through this experience, when you're, maybe even you're working with younger students who are playing Brahms, there's a different something that you can offer that you wouldn't have been offered, or you couldn't have offered had you not done the complete. There's just an extra special perspective from you on that on that topic.

Garrick Ohlsson I couldn't agree more. That's why I think it's good to know lots of the music of any composer or as much as is available. Now, for example, I was an ultimate nerd when I was young, and I remember Christmas holiday when I was 18. I was living at home with my parents, but I was going to Juilliard and I lived nearby, so I commuted for a year. And I borrowed the four volumes of Brahms songs from the library because I had a recording of Fischer-Dieskau singing miscellaneous Brahms songs. And I thought they were so beautiful. And I thought, there are a lot more, you know. And Brahms was the first composer that ever thrilled me viscerally when I was eight, hearing the First Symphony on the radio. And I just said to my mother, "What is that?" And that was one of my first LP recordings, and I played it til I wore it out before I even figured out there were other symphonies. But, so I got to know the songs and I, of course, I mean, yes, that's a very wise thing to advise music students who might want to know Brahms, which is, you know, get to know the range, you know, get to know the chamber music, get to know the symphonies, get to know the songs, because a composer who writes songs, how they set poems, tells you about mood and feeling and what they choose to do. So the more you know, the better, the deeper the pile of riches that you have to share is, in other words, you just know so much more. But it's not about knowing more. It's about the pleasure of it, really. It's I mean, yes, yes, knowing with your mind is very nice, but just the sheer emotional and visceral pleasure of knowing all that music. But it does give you, yes. In the teaching situation or a coaching situation or even when playing with others, you know, you just have, even if you don't say anything, you just kind of, you know, you have a little more backup.

Brian McCreath Yeah, Yeah. That's fantastic. Garrick, It's so nice that you're here. I'm glad that you're doing this world premiere, and I appreciate your time today, I really appreciate it.

Garrick Ohlsson Thank you, Brian. I'm absolutely, absolutely thrilled, and still a little nervous because what I'm talking to you about, we haven't done it yet. [laughs]

Brian McCreath Still to come.

Alan Gilbert interview
Alan Gilbert interview, Jan. 12, 2023


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Alan Gilbert, back with the BSO, and Alan, with a program that once again offers the unexpected. You always bring some interesting things, so thanks for spending some time talking about it with me today. I appreciate it.

Alan Gilbert It's always nice to be back and it's always nice to do interesting things. And the great thing about music is there are so many interesting things, so it's totally worth exploring them.

Brian McCreath You remain the one person who has conducted Wilhelm Stenhammar with this orchestra. But before we even get to that, Lili Boulanger, a piece that this orchestra has never done, So congratulations for breaking that little barrier. The "Morning", uh, "A Spring Morning." And tell me about these two pieces and your thinking about including them on this program.

Alan Gilbert I discovered Lili Boulanger's music some years ago. There's been a really welcome spotlight that has been shown on a wide range of composers who haven't been played in symphony orchestra concerts for quite some time, and it's been unjustified. And the neglect is something we're trying, you know, over time, to correct. Lili Boulanger is the younger sister of the more famous older sister, Nadia Boulanger, who was a composer herself and a very, very important teacher in the 20th century in Paris. And Lili tragically died young, 24 years old, showed huge promise and already composed some, I think, masterpieces, even at that tender age. This is one of them. It's a gem, a five minute little concert overture or vignette, if you will, really charming, very much in the tradition of Debussy, Ravel, but also utterly personal. So she really had her own voice. And I think if she had continued to compose for another 60 years, she would have really been a giant in the music world. As it is, she left some wonderful pieces. This one, I've done a full length oratorio by her. Actually, maybe I wouldn't, it's not quite fair to call it an oratorio because it's only three solo voices, but it's a kind of a dramatic concert scene of Faust and Hélène, Faust et Hélène, beautiful, beautiful music, really, really gifted, utterly personal, unique, varied, clever, lovely orchestrations, totally worth doing.

Brian McCreath And her music, as you say, picks up kind of in the Debussy vein. I mean, we have to sort of, like, hear that connection. But what is it about her piece, Matin de printemps, that is distinctive? What do you do differently with this that you might not do with Debussy?

Alan Gilbert Well, it's very... It's like a mini scherzo in a way. It's very light hearted and brilliant. And it has this kind of crackling texture. I don't know, Debussy music that has that kind of neat figuration in quite that way. So, while the harmonies and some of the textures are totally in the line of Debussy's music, there's a very, very special voice. And the passionate, climactic moments are really, really full-throated and exciting.

Brian McCreath It's an amazing little 5 minutes. The Stenhammar Serenade is a piece you conducted at Tanglewood. So clearly this is a piece you're committed to, and tell me about this piece and your life with it, when you discovered it, and why you like to return to it.

Alan Gilbert I was Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for eight years, and you can't help but get to know the music of Stenhammar when you're a Chief Conductor of a Swedish orchestra. There's so many wonderful works that really should be played more often outside of Scandinavia. They're standard repertoire in Scandinavia. I would include the Berwald symphonies, Hugo Alfvén, there are many. Stenhammar was a wonderful pianist, a great romantic virtuoso in the 19th century who composed. He wrote two piano concertos that are kind of in the tradition of Anton Rubinstein, those big overblown romantic warhorses. But he also wrote this piece, the Serenade, which is a very elegant, virtuosic, symphonic-scale work for orchestra. He calls it a serenade. Brahms wrote two serenades for orchestra, maybe doesn't quite fulfill the ambition or gravitas of a symphony, but it's absolutely a symphonic-scale work. Very varied, five movements, extremely difficult to play. We did it a couple of years ago in Tanglewood, and I thought it was a nice summer program because it's kind of sunny, and it has melancholy moments, but ultimately it's charming. It reminds me a little bit of an early Strauss opera kind of world, although an early Strauss opera that is imbued with a Sibelius kind of open, long landscape, kind of shifting textures that unfold over a period of time. It's really difficult, and I'm happy that it was the Boston Symphony that was playing it in Tanglewood because they don't do that much rehearsal there. They did magnificently. But actually I wasn't the only one who thought, okay, we did this here, let's do it again in Boston, rehearse it for real and really do it up. And some of the musicians were kind enough to express that sentiment. And so I suggested it. And here we are.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And I imagine that, in your conversation setting up this program, that that may have been the anchor. And then, but you also knew you had this commissioned world premiere piano concerto. And then something else to add to the program after that. Tell me the rest of the thinking behind going from the Justin Dello Joio [Oceans Apart] to the Carnival Overture by Dvorak.

Alan Gilbert Well, you know, Garrick [Ohlsson] is a dear friend and one of the great, great pianists. And so I'm always happy to work with him. And the piece that he wanted to play this year was this commissioned work, which I guess was originally commissioned some time ago and never has happened until now. You know, that was enough reason. But also I really have, from afar, I've admired Justin Dello Joio's music, so I agreed to do it. You're right that the starting point, the launching point for the program was the Stenhammar. I love the Stenhammar. I've done it at the end of programs, but it ends light. It ends, it's kind of like, it's a toss off ending. And so it's not a thrilling, heroic end. It's utterly beautiful and charming. But I think it works well at the end of the first half of a program. Maybe that's the place for it. So we thought, okay, we need a little starter for that. And the Lili Boulanger seemed like a good idea. So the Dello Joio got placed after intermission. And then we needed an orchestral piece to close. And you know, you can't go wrong with Dvorak Carnival. It's just one of the, you know, exciting, brilliant works that an orchestra like the Boston Symphony can just eat for breakfast, and it's so much fun. And yeah, I think, you know, it's a strange program, but they're all interesting pieces. The piano concerto, I have to say, is really brilliant, beautifully written, hard for the pianist like crazy, but also challenging for the orchestra, but very, very unique and interesting colors. All in all, I think, you know, nice potpourri of special works that somehow fit together.

Brian McCreath They do. I wouldn't even think of it so much as strange because Carnival kind of leaves us in the place where we began with this exuberant piece by Lilli Boulanger. It's a really nice closer, and so I can totally appreciate how these pieces connect through a whole evening's experience. So I appreciate that.

Alan Gilbert Well, I hope that's the case. It's always fun to come back. I feel like I'm coming home. I studied in Boston, so I listened to the Boston Symphony while I was in college almost every week. And then I studied in Tanglewood, and I've been conducting here since, I don't remember, '95, 6, or something. It's been a long time that I've had the privilege of working regularly with these fantastic musicians. So I love coming here.

Brian McCreath Well, and I was just reviewing the things that you've done in the last several years. They include world premieres, something unexpected here and there. You know, you did Scheherazade 2 by John Adams, all kinds of great things. So once again, I appreciate bringing things to the orchestra and to our audience that may not be expected, maybe a revelation, maybe really turn people on to some things they just hadn't heard before. So, yeah.

Alan Gilbert It's worth it. You know, sometimes people think that they want to just hear what they know. And the fact is that there's such a treasure trove and a wealth of music that isn't played often enough and sometimes has never been played. And, you know, sometimes you find some dogs that maybe are neglected for a reason. But actually the attitude of, you know, expecting or hoping that something will be really special and wonderful is often rewarded.

Brian McCreath Alan Gilbert, welcome back to Boston. It's great to have you here and thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Alan Gilbert Always a pleasure. Thanks, Brian.