Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Garrick Ohlsson

One cannot help but take notice when pianist Garrick Ohlsson enters a room. At 6’4” and 260 pounds, he’s hard to miss. He is possessed of a muscular style at the piano that matches his frame. One of today’s top virtuosos, Ohlsson, age 64, was the first American to win the prestigious International Frederick Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1970.  Over the subsequent years he’s embraced a broad range of repertoire, yet Chopin has always held a place of honor, not just because of the competition that launched his career. He grew up in New York City at a time when all-Chopin piano recitals were standard practice.

A 2003 profile in the New York Times by James Oestreich mentioned that Ohlsson lives in San Francisco with his companion, Robert Guter, an historic preservationist. While Ohlsson doesn’t like being labelled solely as a gay pianist, he doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. He is out and proud, and “I’m no coward,” he says.

No coward, indeed. As proof, late last year Ohlsson released Close Connections, a disc on which most of the music was written by gay male composers. I received this album as a Christmas gift, and I’m embarrassed that I’m just now listening to it (sorry, Rob!). It contains Triptych (1969), a solo piano piece by Louis Weingarden (1943-1989) written for Ohlsson. Weingarden also wrote a piano concerto (1974) for Ohlsson, and that composition was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1977. Weingarden and Ohlsson were good friends, even roommates for a time. Also on this disc is Handwork, a piece for solo piano commissioned by Ohlsson in 1986, written by gay composer William Hibbard (1939-1989). Robert Helps (1928-2001), another gay composer, is represented by the solo piano composition “Shall We Dance”.

Of Sicilian and Swedish heritage,  Mr. Ohlsson was born in White Plains, NY. A late starter, he did not begin piano lessons until age 8, but by age 13, he was a student at Juilliard. During his student days he was a whiz at math and languages (he speaks English, Polish, Italian, Spanish, French, German and Swedish).

He has long championed the finger-busting piano compositions of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), going back to his days with his teacher Frida van Dieren, whom Ohlsson called ''a great-grand-pupil” of Busoni.  ''I played my first Busoni when I was 12,'' he said. ''So I grew up with the legend.'' Mr. Ohlsson went on to win the Busoni Competition in Bolzano, Italy, in 1966, at 18. He brags that playing the Busoni piano concerto (a staggering 70 mintes in length) is no harder than playing the Brahms first piano concerto (D-minor) twice.

Here we have Ohlsson’s performance of Chopin’s Etude #1, Op. 10, from the time of his winning the International Frederick Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1970):


  1. Wow, I heard Ohlsson in concert in the mid-90's in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Great Chopin! (I had no idea at that time that Garrick was gay, and no one had any idea I was either...then!) So great to see him featured.

  2. I remember a TV program where Garrick was quite forthcoming about his homosexuality and this was very early in his career; I think shortly after winning the Chopin competition.

  3. Don't forget what Horowitz said: "There are three kinds of pianists: Jewish pianists, gay pianists and bad pianists." Unfortunately, that puts me in the bad pianists category :(

    1. And most of the Jewish pianists were gay. There are, however, gay nonpianists, Jewish nonpianists, and nongay non-Jewish nonpianists who weren't bad. Chopin was special. He and Beethoven were not Jewish and even not bad.

    2. Poor old Horowitz, victim of a homophobic world! I wonder, could this statement be fueled by his pain and hellish internal conflict? Reminds me of something I heard Beethoven said, "You'll play a long time before you learn you can't play at all." Both were deeply unhappy men. We must forgive them! After all, they gave us so much!

    3. Who were/are the Jewish gay pianists?

  4. Just saw Garrick in Winona, MN at the Beethoven Festival.
    What a great performance. Learned a lot about Scriabin!
    Played three encores, he was very appreciated by the audience.

  5. My god, Garrick was just finishing Juilliard when I started as an undergrad. I didn't know him but by sight, and I had never heard he was gay. His cd of the Ives Concord Sonata is the best I know. I've played that piece because it was something I 'had to do' and I'm glad it's over, because I can now afford to hate Ives, including all the NYCBallet pieces made to his work. Hid Debussy Etudes cd is also good, but I think I was more inspired by Thibaudet for those incredible pieces. I think he worked with Sasha Gorodnitski while a graduate student there.

    Was interested you mentioned Louis Weingarden. Had forgotten all about him. He was very conspicuous in my first few years in New York, whether 'arting' or 'sexing'. He was this super S & M number, one of the first I saw wearing tons of leather, and I was told he was 'dangerous' by someone who was much deeper into the old Eagle's Nest scene than I was. I would never ever have associated him with Garrick Ohlsson.

    That comment by Horowitz is so loathsome. Even if there was homophobia, most brilliant people didn't say such stupid things. Horowitz taught Ivan Davis after he was already famous, and I've always wondered whether Ivan 'put out' for him. Ivan was a gorgeous romantic and had a big Prick--and he was not Jewish (although whether or not circumcised I don't know--from Electra, Texas, he probably was. He died about a year ago.) I'm sure that would have attracted Horowitz, just as it did Leonard Bernstein, but that's different. Bernstein was beautiful too, and Ivan was already married.