Pianist’s focus on Chopin paying off in ways small and large


Brian Ganz performs part of his "Chopin Project" presented by the National Philharmonic Orchestra at the Strathmore. (Jay Mallin)
January 17, 2013

Diffidence is not a characteristic often associated with concert pianists. But Brian Ganz exudes a kind of thoughtful gentleness. He is at once tall, good-looking and unobtrusive, as if wanting not to impose too much on the attentions of others. These qualities make him a good teacher, a sensitive performer, and a perhaps indifferent careerist. “I’ve always felt that if I was actually making music; teaching, which I adore; and able to support myself, that was enough success for me,” he says. “I chose quality over quantity a long time ago.”

Ganz, 52, is in the middle of a distinctive undertaking: a 10-year project to play the complete works of Chopin, under the aegis of the National Philharmonic, the resident orchestra at Strathmore. (The next concert, titled “Small Worlds,” is on Saturday night.) Yet even this huge and ambitious project is marked by a certain diffidence. More and more musicians these days hurl themselves at ever-higher benchmarks: all the sonatas of Beethoven in a season, or even in a day. But you don’t often find someone taking on a project that will outlast the endurance of many audience members.

Why do it? Because it’s an opportunity to live closely with the works of a composer whom Ganz has adored since he started playing the piano as a boy — a composer who brought him back to playing after a personal crisis as a teenager stopped his solo career for seven years and almost silenced it altogether. Because it’s a musically enriching, artistically satisfying project. And because someone asked. The impetus for this project didn’t actually come from Ganz; it was Piotr Gajewski, the founder and music director of the National Philharmonic, who pitched it to him.

Gajewski, born in Poland, was simply looking for a way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of his country’s most famous composer in 2010. “The world was celebrating Chopin,” he says, “and I was looking for a vehicle to do that. Of course, I’m an orchestra conductor by profession,” and he breaks into a rueful laugh; Chopin wrote hardly any music for orchestra. Unable to perform Chopin himself, Gajewski thought about pianists. He had presented Ganz in recital before with considerable success, splitting the box-office proceeds rather than offering a fixed fee. As for the scope of the project — well, it seemed paltry to honor his great national composer with merely a single recital. “I’ve always liked big gestures,” Gajewski says.

But he was also aware that long-term projects have a way of petering out. This one has not. It’s hard to fill a 2,000-seat concert hall with a solo piano recital; Gajewski initially planned to sell tickets only on the ground floor of Strathmore’s main auditorium, which seats 800. But “lo and behold,” he says, “the tickets just started selling and selling.” Ganz’s first recital, in January 2011, sold out; for the second one, the presenters had to put additional seats on stage to meet the demand. “So here we are, the third year,” Gajewski says, “and for [Brian] it’s become this centerpiece in his career, and people seem to be coming back again and again.”

Centerpiece indeed. Few musicians have the opportunity to immerse themselves so completely in the work of a great composer. Chopin was already one of Ganz’s primary focuses — at least since he heard the first of the four Ballades at the age of 11 and wondered how music could be so beautiful that it hurt. But though most pianists have the Chopin Ballades in their arsenal, few have mastered juvenalia like the first sonata, which, Ganz says, is both very difficult and not especially inspired. “I thought delving into the early works would be a labor of love,” Ganz said. “That hasn’t turned out to be the case,” apart from the first sonata. More often, he finds early pieces like the “Trois Ecossaises” on Saturday’s program unexpectedly rewarding.

There’s an art to figuring out how to spread a composer’s oeuvre over 10 years of programs so that you’re not left scraping the bottom of the barrel in year nine. Ganz is engaged in what he calls “musical gardening,” juxtaposing the early seeds of ideas with mature works. The latter include the 24 Preludes, among Chopin’s greatest masterworks, the heart of Saturday’s program and one of the few works Ganz has already recorded to his own satisfaction. The program’s title, “Small Worlds,” refers to these musical miniatures, which in Ganz’s view contain fleeting glimpses of something larger, communicating through allusion and a profound sense of nostalgia.

Since this Chopin project has taken off, Ganz is allocating his time carefully so that his performing life can focus principally on these concerts. But his musical life is balanced in any case. He’s an active teacher at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and at Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute, which allows him to work both in a liberal arts climate and in the hothouse air of a conservatory. And he keeps his travel to a minimum for the sake of spending as much time as he can with his 15-year-old son, Dylan, savoring the last few years before he leaves for college.

Teaching at Peabody is closing a circle, since he studied for many years with Peabody’s leading piano teacher, Leon Fleisher. When he first started working with Fleisher, he was a teenager who already had management and was playing some concerts, looking ahead to a big career. Fleisher gave him a sense of perspective that subsequently stood him in good stead.

“He said, ‘You know the music itself will be your haven, from all the trappings of the big career,’ ” Ganz says. “I thought, that’s the juice: the ultimate satisfaction is in the making of the music. In many ways, there’s something equally satisfying about a very small audience where there’s no media attention whatsoever, and it’s just you and these hungry souls eager to be nourished by beauty. And that for me is just as satisfying as a big high-visibility concert at a hall like Strathmore.”

Strathmore isn’t the height of every pianist’s aspirations, either. But for Ganz, it’s working out just fine.

“I’m extraordinarily happy for Brian that it’s worked out the way it has,” Gajewski says. “And you can imagine that I’m also slightly gleeful for coming up with the idea.”

Brian Ganz Chopin Project

8 p.m., Jan. 19

Music Center at Strathmore

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