An imposing physical presence at six feet four inches tall, with a reach of a 12th, Garrick Ohlsson is a pianist with a flawless technique, a strong grasp of form, and a clean, non-romanticized style of performing. He began piano studies when he was eight years old, attending the Westchester Conservatory of Music. After he saw Rubinstein in concert, he told interviewer Michael Steinberg, his choice of career was set. "I was blasted into orbit. And that's when I said in my mind...when other little boys say, 'I want to be a fireman,' that's what I want to do." He entered the preparatory course of the Juilliard School when he was 13, where he studied with Sascha Gorodnitzki; remaining at Juilliard for his bachelor's degree in music (earned in 1971), he studied with Rosina Lhévinne. Private studies with Olga Barabini, Irma Wolpe, and Claudio Arrau rounded out Ohlsson's education.
In 1966 he won the Busoni Competition in Italy, and in 1968, the Montreal Piano Competition, but it was his 1970 victory in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw that launched his career. He was the first American winner, and his victory gained some of the same kind of attention as had Van Cliburn's Tchaikovsky Competition triumph a little over a decade earlier. A Warsaw critic called Ohlsson a "bear-butterfly" of a pianist, and the young pianist had a distinctive image to go with his credentials.
Ohlsson has maintained a strong association with the music of Chopin, and has played the Polish master's complete piano works several times in recital and on recordings. His Chopin interpretations favor intense emotionalism over a languid, swooning salon style. Ohlsson is by no means exclusively a player of Chopin; however, his repertory extends from Haydn to 20th century masters and includes more than 80 works for piano and orchestra. He tours and appears as a guest soloist with orchestras around the world and has made over a dozen tours to Poland alone, where he continues to be particularly esteemed for his Chopin playing. He is also an avid chamber performer and has collaborated with the Cleveland, Tokyo and Tákacs quartets. With violinist Jorja Fleezanis and cellist Michael Grebanier he founded the FOG Trio, based in San Francisco. During the 2002-2003 season, Ohlsson appeared as part of the Lincoln Center Great Performers series in New York, performing works by Busoni. A pianist completely consumed with musical life, Ohlsson has, when asked by an interviewer, been unable to remember what kind of car he drives.