Pianist lights up Mozart

Jeremy Denk
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice - everybody knows that one - but it also helps to have a ringer in your corner.

For Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, that would be pianist Jeremy Denk, whose appearance with the orchestra was the brightest spot in an otherwise iffy concert in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night. This was a preview of the touring program scheduled for next week at Carnegie; I'll be curious to see whether it impresses New York audiences.

Certainly it would be hard to withstand the depth and subtlety of Denk's performance in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503. This has been a good stretch for Denk, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in September and followed that up with a dazzling new recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations."

His Mozart has a cousinly relationship to his Bach - it boasts the same crystalline textures and rhythmic bounce, while introducing a host of darker and more varied tonal colors to the mix. The imposing grandeur of the opening movement contrasted beautifully with the intimate lyricism of the slow movement - which Denk rendered in softly nuanced shades - and in turn with the restrained exuberance of the finale. And his original cadenzas were splendid, both idiomatic and arresting.

Yet what's most striking about Denk's playing is the level of interpretive specificity he can pack into a performance without making it seem mannered or ornate. Every note of the concerto sounded judged and deliberate - and yet somehow the entire thing flowed naturally along, with utmost ease. This is the art that conceals art.

Thomas and the orchestra, meanwhile, waited until the final performance of Copland's "Symphonic Ode" to come into their own. Written in the late 1920s and revised some 30 years later, this is one of those pieces that are most comprehensible in hindsight, in which a young composer stakes out a more expansive stretch of turf than he can quite handle yet.

The main interest of the piece is all the ways it foreshadows Copland's later career - it includes big, brassy fanfares, jazz rhythms, luminous open harmonies a la "Appalachian Spring" and much more besides. It requires a capacious, overarching vision to keep the piece from settling into whiplash, and Thomas - who introduced the piece to the Symphony repertoire in 1996 - sustained just that big-picture view. The brass playing was gritty and inspired, the woodwinds wonderfully pointed.

Presumably the Copland also sucked up all the available rehearsal time - at least to judge by the scattershot and often error-prone performance of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 that began the evening. No one involved with this one sounded quite on their game.

And finally, there was "Eating Greens," composer Steve Mackey's unfocused exercise in facetious mugging. In his introductory remarks, Thomas insisted that this 1994 piece is not funny, and the performance proved him right. But it's not very interesting, either - an extended skein of vignettes that never seem to amount to anything.

There's some fragmentary Christmas music, a Gershwin street scene, an episode in which the concertmaster's violin runs aground on a low re-tuning, a Godzilla-meets-"Nutcracker" pastiche and finally a taut, jazzy dance that offers the score's only actually memorable passages. In the department of small favors, at least a gimmick involving a mid-performance pizza delivery has finally hit the cutting-room floor.