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.”