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Journey of the spirit

The boy was 11, already well along in his process of discovering music, when he found himself alone at home one day, listening to a piece by one of history's great romantics.

He couldn't explain it, but something in the sounds of Frederic Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23 — as played by Polish musician Witold Malcuzynsky — struck Brian Ganz like a bolt from stormy skies.

"It was mysterious, sort of soulful, and I actually, literally, doubled over in pain," says Ganz, an internationally celebrated concert pianist who lives in Annapolis. "I remember thinking, 'What is this? How can it be so beautiful that it hurts?' That was the moment that I like to say Chopin wounded me."

The injury, if painful, was an opening to explore, and Ganz's journey never stopped. On Saturday, Jan. 22, the performer of "breathtaking technique and spectacular musicianship," as one reviewer recently put it, embarks on a series of concerts at the Strathmore Theater in Bethesda in which he'll perform all of the 250 works Chopin composed.

"My intention is to play absolutely every note," says Ganz, 50, who calls the 19th-century composer his lifelong love. "I won't leave a thing out. It all has value, it all has beauty" — including the two polonaises Chopin wrote at age 7, which will be part of Saturday's concert.  

Ganz is likely the first to have undertaken such a project on Chopin, according to Piotr Gajewski, the musical director and conductor of the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, which is sponsoring the series. It should take the performer roughly a decade to complete — about 14 full concerts at a rate of one or more a year.

Seated at the grand piano in his light-filled home, Ganz says the stunning range of human emotion in Chopin — who wrote the vast majority of his works for the solo piano — has helped inspire his own journey through life.

To hear him tell it, that voyage has been a little like Ballade No. 1, which he says he will play for a reporter. Not every passage has been harmonious.

Awestruck

When Chopin was a 5-year-old child in Warsaw, Poland, his musical ear was so keen that when his mother played piano around the house, he wept at the beauty of it.

By 7, in 1817, he was well-known as a composing and performing prodigy, and he went on to write what some consider the most challenging piano pieces of all time.

Ganz, the child of English teachers, didn't get started quite that young, but as a boy growing up in Columbia, he too felt the draw of music early.

His grandfather, a choir director in Pennsylvania, played the piano at family gatherings, and hearing that, Ganz says, left him "awestruck" — and cemented the feeling that he would spend his life at a keyboard. By age 9 he was taking lessons, absorbing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and relishing trips to the music store so he could hear the next mazurka or nocturne by Chopin.

Why Chopin? He's not sure — "Music is what it is because you can't put it into words," Ganz says — but he sensed a lot of harmonic inventiveness in the compositions, not to mention an exotic or mysterious strain, as though the music was posing a million fascinating questions it couldn't quite answer.

"I've long said, perhaps a little cryptically, that if you can imagine different composers speaking different languages, Chopin's music is the language of my soul," Ganz says.

A succession of master teachers shaped it: the late Claire Deene, who doled out Ganz's assignments with meticulous care; a fiery Hungarian tutor in Washington, Yida Novik, who threw him into a lively salon-style environment and encouraged him to join competitions; and, when he was 16, the legendary conductor and Peabody Conservatory music professor, Leon Fleisher.

He had already demonstrated extraordinary promise. Adrienne Sirken, the executive director of the Golandsky Institute International Piano Festival at Princeton University, studied with Ganz under Novik and remembers a young teen with formidable attention skills and a vast appetite for learning.

He made two years' worth of progress in six months, Sirken says, surpassing even the older kids, and emerged as the star of the studio.

Normally that would cause some resentment, but Ganz had such a charming, disarming manner, it never happened. "Even if you were tempted to, it was impossible to hate him," she says with a laugh.

Ganz remembers his time with Fleisher as "an extraordinary experience of gestation, some of the most intense learning of my life" — a year and a half of exploring structure and craft but also pondering poetry, philosophy and more.

Fleisher taught him to see a score as a sort of treasure map that points toward an ideal — but also that, no matter how hard you work or how good you are, "every piece is greater than what you can possibly play, so you're forever striving for an ideal you can never reach."

By his mid-teens, Ganz was practicing seven hours a day. He had professional management, lots of solo engagements and a growing name as a prodigy in his own right. But he hadn't absorbed quite all of Fleisher's teachings, and that led him to some mysteries of his own.

A bold break

At the keyboard in a studio at the rear of his house, the teacher and the performer in Ganz are both evident as he strikes two of the opening chords to Ballade No. 1.

Structurally, they're both G-minors. Atmospherically, they're different.

"One's milk chocolate," says Ganz, moving his hands to a slightly different position. "The other's dark chocolate."

His adult life has been a little like that.

Sometime during his 18th year, as he pursued his busy concert schedule, his feelings toward his calling began to change. As he looked toward performances, Ganz found himself feeling dread.

He was still dazzling listeners, but onstage, he found himself fixating less on the process of making music and more on how he looked, how he compared with other pianists, what kind of reviews he might get.

And musically, he was driving himself toward a cruel and unattainable standard: perfection.

"In some ways, I had grown up too fast, in other ways not fast enough," he says. "It was like that nightmare in which you find yourself up in an airplane, only to realize you don't know how to fly the thing. I didn't know how to say it at the time, but I remember thinking, 'I don't want to be a fearful, tight, unhappy pianist who's afraid to make mistakes. Maybe music isn't the direction I want to go after all.' "

Chopin's biographers say he composed by improvising on the piano, then staying up all night trying to figure out what he'd done. Ganz, too, decided to follow his instincts, then try to understand them.

At 18, he decided to stop playing solo concerts.

"I think it's coupled with the nature of being a soloist," says Sirken, who has remained friends with Ganz. "You spend a tremendous amount of time alone, in your own head, hearing, crafting, listening to and responding to yourself. It's physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging. At the same time, it's tempting to think of yourself as hot stuff. It was bold of him to quit."

Ganz enrolled in liberal arts classes at Catholic University. He considered a career in organized religion. He threw himself into Werner Erhard's est, prayed and meditated, and studied "A Course in Miracles," among other spiritual pursuits.

"I was trying to open myself to what had been fearful, to embrace a willingness to be imperfect," says Ganz. He began to sense an odd paradox: that the best music might, in fact, come out of flawed human nature.

After seven years, in 1985, a nervous Ganz decided to try the stage again. The old sense of exploration was back, but there was a difference. He was serving the music rather than the other way around. And enjoying it more than ever.

Odyssey

The artist's curriculum vitae lists achievements that establish him, in the words of a faculty biography, as "one of the leading pianists of his generation."

Ganz has performed at concert halls from Helsinki to Tokyo, recorded on the Accord label in France and the REM label in Europe, and won an array of performance honors, including first prizes in the Thibaud International Piano Competition in Paris and the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Piano Competition.

One music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently wrote of his "cascades of rippling arpeggios, melodies soaring into space and microscopically sculpted phrases."

Gajewski says Chopin or no, he invites Ganz to perform with the National Philharmonic more than any other soloist.

"He's incredibly musical, [a man with] flawless technique," says the maestro, who got the idea for the series last year, which was the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth. "I thought it would be interesting to choose Brian. It seemed the perfect marriage of passion and skill."

Ganz — who is on the teaching faculties of both Peabody and St. Mary's College of Maryland — allows time during concerts for the audience to ask questions, and the audience has asked everything from why he sometimes uses sheet music to what it's like to be a performer.

He loves the process and considers it part of his calling.

"There's something like nourishment in music," he says. "My goal is that we all be nourished by this music together. For me that means opening up to the connections that are possible with these beautiful souls who are there to share this great music with you.

"I don't want to say it's easy to let go of the ego. It's not. But when you can, the goal of authentic communication with your listeners becomes much more attainable," he says.

He sits at the keyboard again, preparing to play Ballade No. 1 — "the odyssey of Chopin's soul," in the words of an American music critic.

It's a great narrative, Ganz says, an example of the way in which Chopin could pose a problem, then work toward a stirring resolution, all without words.

He lurches forward and begins. An opening chord is jarring — a G minor ninth, a sound so strange to listeners of Chopin's time that publishers believed it was a mistake.

His eyes close as he lets the sound ring out, a blend of hopefulness and gloom that has the character of an existential question.

"That's the final rallying call to the beginning of the story," he says later.

As he teases out a melodic theme, Ganz navigates through passages that, by turns, evoke tenderness, a joy, then, in a flurry of notes, stratospheric triumph, his face mirroring each emotion as he goes.

Upon finishing, Ganz drops his head, apparently exhausted. "That's a demanding journey," he says.

Full circle

Ganz says he doesn't know the order in which he'll play the 250 mazurkas, polonaises, ballades, concertos, sonatas, nocturnes and more over the next few years.

He does know that on Saturday, he'll start with some of Chopin's less-mature works, including the two early polonaises, and pieces from later in his life, such as the Polonaise in A Flat and Sonata No. 2, Op. 35, the "Funeral March" — that display his early techniques in full flower.

"I'll be doing what I call some musical gardening," Ganz says, adding that the concert's theme is "Chopin's beginnings."

Later in the series, when Chopin's works call for an orchestra, Gajewski's National Philharmonic will back Ganz.

Sirken believes that with his lifelong passion for the composer and his power to focus, Ganz is the right person for the venture.

"Some would call [his love of Chopin] an obsession. Some would term it a calling," she says. "I know how thorough he is. I'm sure he'll dig up every note and perform it with full commitment."

Yet even on the brink of "going everywhere Chopin went," Ganz wonders what, if the tables were turned, he might ask the composer if he had the chance.

The thought returns him to the beginning.

"I'd love to ask him what he was thinking, what he was feeling when he composed. Where did this or that come from? Does spirituality play a part in your life? What do you see as your reason for being? Where are you going with all of this? What have you learned?

"All of that ties into what I love about Chopin. In some ways, I think, it ties into why I'm a performer — and why I was born."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

If you go

What: Pianist Brian Ganz's All Chopin Piano Recital, presented by the National Philharmonic

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22

Where: The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda

Tickets: From $24. To purchase, go to nationalphilharmonic.org or call 301- 581-5100

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