You can tell a good bit about a pianist by the kind of instrument he chooses and by how well he utilizes its particular capabilities.
Garrick Ohlsson, whose recital Sunday in Tawes Theatre kicked off the piano festival associated with the University of Maryland's William Kapell Competition, has almost always opted for a Bosendorfer. This Viennese instrument differs considerably from the Steinways with which we are most familiar. The Bosendorfer's sound is much less homogenized because its bass is not as thick as the Steinway's and its strings are less carefully controlled by the instrument's dampers. It is a sweet-sounding instrument, with a bass register that -- perhaps because of an unused complement of strings at the instrument's bottom -- supplies a greater range of colors than any other modern piano.
That Ohlsson knows how to use this individual instrument was obvious throughout his recital of works by Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. The start of the concluding fugue in Beethoven's Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major (opus 110) was so quiet that the hall's air-conditioning system sounded almost like a roar; the bass chords in the slow movement in Schubert's "Wanderer Fantasy" were endowed with a sense of mysterious thunder that grew ominously near; and the different registers of the instrument -- more sharply characterized in the Bosendorfer than in other pianos -- were used in the three nocturnes of Chopin's opus 9 to give the melody a degree of expression like that of the human voice.
But Ohlsson, 46, has always been a remarkable pianist. What this recital -- as well as a performance of Brahms' Concerto No. 2 earlier this season with the Baltimore Symphony -- demonstrated is that he has grown into a more exciting and imaginative musician.
The slow movement of the Beethoven was genuinely songful and mournful, and the following final movement was filled with thanksgiving and cumulative joy. The slow movement of the Schubert was profound, even tragic. And Chopin's B-flat Minor Scherzo, which can so easily sound like a tired potboiler, displayed a seriousness of purpose and a grandeur of conception that made listeners hear the work through freshly cleaned ears.
In the Kapell Competition, the 12 semi-finalists from the field of 31 contestants were named. They are: Soojin Ahn, 22 (Lincolnwood, Ill.); Mark Anderson, 30 (Pleasanton, Calif.); Armen Babakhanian, 26 (Armenia); Sean Botkin, 24 (Federal Way, Wash.); Mariana Gurkova, 29 (Bulgaria); Andre Ivanovitch, 26 (Russia); Stanislav Judenich, 22 (Uzbekistan); Iouri Martynov, 25 (Russia); Leonel Morales, 29 (Cuba); Sergey Schepkin, 31 (Boston, Mass.); Jeannie Yu, 28 (Des Moines, Iowa); and Riccardo Zadra, 32 (Italy).
After four days of semi-final sessions, three contestants will be selected Thursday to advance to the final round on Saturday in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Following concerto performances with the National Symphony, the first prize of $20,000, a second prize of $10,000 and a third prize of $5,000 will be awarded. The first-prize winner will also receive several recital engagements, including one at Alice Tully Hall in New York's Lincoln Center and another at the University of Maryland, College Park.