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Expect excitement—plus many happy returns and some exciting departures—when the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra opens its 2015-16 season with a Beethoven Festival at Hill Auditorium September 19 at 8pm.

“The whole concert is a departure into the Romantic era,” says A2SO Music Director Arie Lipsky. “It’s Beethoven diving in.”

Beethoven plunges deep and daring in the A2SO program: the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica;” the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37; and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80, “Choral Fantasy.” It’s a blockbuster lineup.

And if this concert spotlights a titan among composers, it also brings back to Ann Arbor a giant among pianists—Garrick Ohlsson.

Garrick Ohlsson Returns to Ann Arbor

Ohlsson, 67, is an international star who garnered a big local fan base with his two-year, six-concert traversal of Chopin’s complete solo piano works, played in Ann Arbor under University Musical Society auspices in 1995-96. He has also been a frequent visitor to Detroit-area music venues.

“I’m excited to be back,” Ohlsson said in a late-August phone call from Melbourne, Australia, where he was on tour; he was eager to hear how Ann Arbor had changed since he was last in town in 2002.

Last season, to headline its first Beethoven Festival, the A2SO snared superstar pianist Andre Watts (for a thrilling “Emperor Concerto”). It was a declaration, really, of the stature of this top-notch regional orchestra.

“Arie had this dream to start each season at Hill [Auditorium] with a major artist, and this is now part of our long-term programming plan,” said A2SO Executive Director Mary Steffek Blaske. (The orchestra’s usual home is the Michigan Theater.)

The 2 Rs—repertoire and reputation—figured into Ohlsson’s decision to accept the orchestra’s invitation.

“I did my research before I accepted,” Ohlsson said. “And you don’t get to play the ‘Choral Fantasy’ too often. It’s impractical, because of the chorus. That was another reason to think about coming.”

With the Grammy-winning UMS Choral Union on hand, the impractical is practical. The group’s participation is another happy return, and a departure, too. The chorus teams up regularly with the A2SO, notably for annual “Messiah” performances. Their new conductor, Scott Hanoian, has prepared the group for Beethoven.

Innovative Beethoven

All three works on the program are landmarks. 

In the “Eroica” symphony—premiered in 1805—Beethoven leaves behind the strictures of earlier models, and even of his own first two essays in this genre. He sets course for unexplored lands, his vessel larger and grander than before. The proportions are new; the elements surprising; the vistas heroic and unexpected.

“The Eroica,” Maestro Lipsky said, paraphrasing a famous French critic, is “a miracle even among Beethoven’s work. Nowhere does he make so big a single stride.”

Innovation is equal in the third piano concerto, which premiered in 1805. If it is an intimate work among the five Beethoven piano concertos, it’s also “a prototype of one of Beethoven’s favorite devices of form: the journey from darkness to light,” Ohlsson said.

Meanwhile, the concerto’s orchestral opening “is symphonic as none before,” he added, its argument laid out “complexly and completely.” And then there’s the matter of the soloist’s entrance.

“Here, the piano is rushing furiously up three octaves of scales,” said Ohlsson. “It’s such a challenge from the opening instrument, and it’s a first time for scales like this. The soloist is a challenging fellow, and loud, and he comes out and puts his lion paw down.”

Yet, though we may think of Beethoven perennially shaking his fist at the heavens, he also wrote an awful lot of gentle music, Ohlsson pointed out—the “sublime” slow movement of this concerto included.

The ultimate Beethoven journey from darkness to light may be the Symphony No. 9, with its concluding “Ode to Joy.” The “Choral Fantasy,” which premiered in 1808, is his sketchbook for that piece, a little brother to it in which he tries out the “Ode to Joy” material. Its opening falls to the pianist, though, who must follow a tough act—Beethoven himself. The composer was at the keyboard for the first performance, improvising the part. (He also soloed in the third concerto at its premiere.)

“It’s Beethoven not in a hurry and not structural,” Ohlsson said, and it keeps the audience on tenterhooks by sheer rhetoric, sheer noise and arresting modulations.

Dare we add virtuosity?

“Well,” says Ohlsson, modestly, “it might give you an idea of the striking quality of Beethoven’s improvisation.”

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett. Nisbett writes about classical music, dance and the performing arts in Ann Arbor.

Purchase tickets from $17-$73 for the Beethoven Festival with Garrick Ohlsson here. There is a free pre-concert lecture at 7pm for ticket holders, featuring Music Director Arie Lipsky and soloist Garrick Ohlsson.