Garrick Ohlsson kicks off a celebration season for Fresno State’s prestigious Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series

Ten years go by quickly. It seems like just a few Minute Waltzes ago that I was calling the famed pianist Garrick Ohlsson to talk to him about the 40th anniversary of the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series.

Ohlsson told me in that call he was delighted to dedicate his performance to Lorenz, whom he remembers as a “wonderful pianist with a very beautiful and deep sound.”

Pictured above: Garrick Ohlsson is Keyboard Concerts’ most prolific performer.

“I liked the intensity of the series and the aspiration of it, and I liked Philip, and I liked that he was trying to bring the best possible keyboard music to Fresno. I had a soft spot for it because of him.”

The pair met in the 1960s when Lorenz was a student and assistant of Claudio Arrau, the legendary Chilean-American musician widely considered to be among the greatest pianists of the 20th century.

Lorenz, a piano professor at Fresno State, died in 1992 at the age of 56. But the series continued. And Ohlsson kept returning to Fresno.


Now, for the 50th anniversary of the series, Ohlsson is doing the honors by playing the opening concert, 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, at the Fresno State Concert Hall. He will perform works by Beethoven, Chopin and Szymanowski.

Time for another virtuosic phone call.

Ohlsson — who in 1970 achieved worldwide attention when he became the first and only American to earn the Gold Medal in the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw — has headlined the series over the decades more than any other luminous name. (After discussing the matter, we think his upcoming concert will be his 10th appearance, but it’s hard to keep track.) ​​Ohlsson is a fan of solo piano series of all shapes and sizes, but especially the smaller, more intimate ones that have become habits for him over the years — ones like the 92nd Street Y in New York and the Chamber Music in Napa Valley series.

The Fresno series plays to an audience the fraction of the size of the bigger venues in which Ohlsson often performs, such as Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. That means he can get riskier with his programming choices.

“It’s really great to come to Fresno, because here you can play whatever you want. You don’t have to worry about the box office. It gives you freedom.”

Which explains the Szymanowki piece on Sunday’s program, tucked in there among the more mainstream offerings from Beethoven and Chopin.

Szymanowki is arguably the most famous Polish composer after Chopin, Ohlsson says. The composer wrote hyper-romantic music that carried forward from where Scriabin left off. His Sonata No. 3 is “very lush, very complex, a very tight work. It’s very, deeply virtuosic and challenging.”
That type of piece fits in exactly with Lorenz’s vision for the series, says Andreas Werz, who took over stewardship of the series after Lorenz’s untimely death.

“He was an explorer type,” Werz says. “And he loved highlighting rare repertoire.”

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Running a solo piano series is never easy, not even one that can attract such world-class pianists as Ohlsson, Yefim Bronfman, Jeremy Denk and Natasha Paremski, all of whom are on the 50th anniversary season lineup.

Werz came to Fresno State in 1985 as a student of Lorenz and quickly became an indispensable part of the university’s piano program. He was hired in a tenure-track position in 1987 and worked alongside Lorenz helping to run the Keyboard series.

Lorenz had been at Fresno State since 1969. He started the Keyboard Series in 1972. Concerts were held off-campus in such venues as Stevenson Music on Blackstone Avenue, the Fresno Memorial Auditorium and Northwest Church. Lorenz purposefully sought an off-campus presence for the series, perhaps to get away from the petty politics of the music department.

Keyboard Concerts

Clockwise from top left: Yefim Bronfman, Aidan Purtell, Natasha Paremski and Jeremy Denk are all part of the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts 2021-22 season.

In the early days, there were fewer concerts per season. As you’d expect, there was always a financially scrappy feel to the endeavor.

“There was a little bit of a deficit at the end of the first season,” Werz says. Board members had to fill the money hole.

After Lorenz died and Werz took over, the series forged a tighter relationship with Fresno State. Luis Costa, then dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, initiated a move for Keyboard from Northwest Church to Fresno State. The university provided the hall and piano — two major expenses — for free, absorbing the series into Fresno State’s cultural offerings.

“The move to Fresno State was a great move in order to stabilize our finances,” Werz says.

It’s paid off for the university, too. The Keyboard series might not attract audiences as large as a Bulldog football game, but in terms of the caliber of performers who visit campus, the world-class level of music produced and the international reach of its reputation, it is arguably the most prestigious program at Fresno State — period.

Ohlsson remains impressed with the interest and enthusiasm of audience members, many of whom he has met over the years in post-concert receptions.

“Keyboard Concerts is one of the series I’ve visited with the most regularity,” he says. “Some of the fans and listeners are very knowledgeable and very ambitious in what they want.”

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For the 50th season, Werz and Keyboard’s board of directors decided not to celebrate with one gala concert but are instead spreading the festivities throughout the season. Current COVID-19 restrictions have meant the temporary cancellation of the popular post-concert receptions. Following selected concerts, invited guests will join the performing artist for dinner.

The first season of Keyboard Concerts in 1972 attracted 60 subscribers. That number grew over the years, hitting a peak in 2002 with 394 subscribers.

“That meant the hall was basically full with season-ticket holders,” Werz says.

But classical music has been struggling in the past 15 years. Audiences are getting ever older. Back when the series started, the split was probably 60-to-40 in terms of ages 65-plus versus younger patrons. Now, Werz says, it’s more like an 80-to-20 split.

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The Great Recession took a toll. Audiences never fully came back after that. The Keyboard series was down to 130 subscribers during the last full season. (COVID-19 forced the cancellation of a season-and-a-half of performances.)

But fans, sponsors and patrons of the series have remained stalwart. And there are signs in the classical-music world that younger audiences are responding. Ohlsson notes that the 15 months of the pandemic — which he jokes large chunks of was spent by him in sweatpants at his San Francisco home watching Netflix — forced orchestras and concert series to experiment with streaming and recorded performances.

Can such experiences replace live performance? Not at all, Ohlsson says. But he’s hoping that it might have sparked new audiences and given new creative outlets for music organizations striving to connect with younger generations.

“I don’t think it replaces concerts, but I think it replaces something extra. It’s complicated. When recording was invented, some people thought it would destroy live performance. But recording has turned out to be a boon for music.”

For now, he is happy to celebrate Keyboard’s 50th. Looking ahead, both he and Werz say that they will continue to do what they love. When I tell Ohlsson that people in Fresno are always excited about him coming to play, he responds: “I couldn’t be more pleased.”

We don’t make an appointment for 10 years from now for the 60th anniversary concert. But I’m pretty sure he’ll take my call.

Concert info

Garrick Ohlsson performs at Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts. 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, Fresno State Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 general, $18 seniors, $5 students.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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