Frédéric Chopin’s performances in the aristocratic salons of the 1830s in Paris come to life again Saturday, Jan. 19, when pianist Brian Ganz presents the third entry in his concert series surrounding the music of the legendary Polish composer and pianist.
“At age 9, when I was falling in love with the piano, I was falling in love with Chopin’s music,” says Ganz, who has committed to playing all of Chopin’s more than 250 works with the National Philharmonic orchestra based at Strathmore during the next 10 years.
Called “Small Worlds,” the Saturday concert will focus on some of the short “miniature” works that Chopin is known for, including mazurkas based on Polish dances, preludes and ballades.
Unlike some of his contemporaries who wrote sweeping orchestral pieces for the concert hall, Chopin preferred to write and perform shorter works for nobility in salons and other smaller venues.
On the program are Chopin’s 24 préludes, each written in a different key and each intended to convey a different feeling or idea.
The préludes were written on the Spanish island of Majorca, where Chopin spent a winter with his lover, French novelist Amantine Dupin, a woman who wrote under the pen name of George Sand.
Also on the program are mazurkas, one of which reveals Chopin’s sense of humor. At the end of the piece, he instructs the pianist to keep repeating the marzurka. That means it is up to the pianist to figure out when to finish it, noted Ganz at a preview mini-concert at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville on Jan. 5.
“The joke is on the performer,” Ganz says. “Chopin’s music is full of tremendous wit and sophistication.”
Also on the program are three Scottish dances that are rarely performed.
“One of the greatest pleasures of the whole series is getting to play [some of these neglected pieces],” Ganz says.
Chopin wrote the Scottish dances when he was 19.
“They’re short, charming, full of vigor and the directness of youth,” says Ganz.
“[By contrast], the later préludes are about what he leaves out. He was a master of implication.”
Ganz will also perform a nocturne that Chopin wrote for his older sister Ludwika Chopin called “Lento con Gran Espressione [slow with great expression] in C-sharp minor.”
The piece, the last music to be played on Polish radio as the Nazis began bombing Warsaw in 1939, is featured in Roman Polanski’s movie, “The Pianist.”
Also on the program are ballades inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s revered national poet, who died in 1855 after working for Poland’s freedom from Russian rule.
One of the ballades is Ballade No. 1 in G. Minor, Op. 23, which Ganz says was a key factor in his decision to become a professional concert performer.
Grandson of a pianist, Ganz grew up in Kensington and Columbia and began taking piano lessons at age 9.
He began performing solo as a teenager, studying for a time with Leon Fleisher, pianist and holder of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chair at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
But when Ganz was 18, he felt he needed to take a break from solo performing.
“I didn’t think I was ready,” he says. “I needed to do some other things, to do some growing.”
He took classes for two years at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and also continued to play the piano with chamber groups.
At 23, he heard a recording of Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 7 in C sharp minor, known as the “cello étude,” and was again drawn into Chopin’s orbit.
“I thought, ‘How can I not be playing this?’” Ganz says.
“His music called me back — I couldn’t delay it any longer.”
Ganz went back on tour and entered competitions, one of which resulted in his studying with his former teacher, Fleisher, for five years at the Peabody Conservatory.
Currently a member of the piano faculty at Peabody, Ganz is also an artist-in-residence at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in southern Maryland.
Now 52, Ganz credits the Ballade No. 1 with setting him on a course to perform professionally.
When he was 12 and learning to play, he was so struck by the piece’s beauty that he bent over in pain.
“How can this be so beautiful, so sad, so heartbreaking, so powerful and so joyful,” he says. “It’s been my quest to answer that unanswerable question.”