San Francisco piano virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson is proud to take on Alexander Scriabin, a composer who believed he was the messiah, yet couldn’t save his own brilliant music from obscurity.
Ohlsson – who performs all 10 of Scriabin’s enigmatic piano sonatas on the centennial of the composer’s death in a two-part San Francisco Performances program beginning Sunday – says Scriabin’s lack of popularity among today’s audiences runs counter to that of professional music makers.
“If you ask any trained musician, it is beyond discussion that Scriabin is one of the great composers at the turn of the century, in the company of Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Stravinsky. He had a genius for piano sound, very much the way Chopin did. It’s the character of his music – hyper-sensuous, languorous, demonic – that’s subjective,” says Ohlsson, the only American to win the prestigious Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw – a feat he accomplished in 1970 over Emanuel Ax and Mitsuko Uchida.
Since his death at 43 in 1915, pianists enthusiastically have spread the gospel of Scriabin, whom many believe to be Chopin’s successor. Vladimir Horowitz, who met and was inspired by Scriabin as a boy, performed his works throughout his life.
“[Scriabin’s] late phase is probably more appealing to geeky, nerdy musician types,” Ohlsson says, laughing, “but in his time, and still to this day in Russia, Scriabin is very much up there with Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.”
Heavily influenced by Chopin in his earlier years, Scriabin thought his music had spiritual healing powers, and themes of ecstasy, fire and purification made their way into his scores. Toward the end of his life, he believed he was the real messiah, who would sound the final chord of the human race, uniting it with the spirit. Scriabin’s final, unfinished work, “Mysterium,” was to unite people and lead to a new world order.
More recently, San Francisco has been the world of Ohlsson, a native of White Plains, N.Y., who moved here with his partner in 1996.
He says, “I was here in 1972 after the Chopin, and like many, just fell in love with The City. I wanted to keep coming back, and started a trio here with Michael Grebanier and Jorja Fleezanis. By the mid-80s, I was convinced I had to move here.”
Ohlsson, who lives north of Market Street near the Castro, says, “When I’m in town, I go to San Francisco Fitness right across the street, to restaurants like Canela and Zuni Café. I travel a lot for work, and have seen many beautiful places, but what can I say ? You leave your heart in San Francisco, and you come back to find your heart.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by San Francisco Performances
Where: SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 7 and 7:30 p.m. March 14
Tickets: $40 to $68 or ($70 to $125 for both)
Contact: (415) 392-2545, www.sfperformances.org