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Jeremy Denk's charismatic Mozart at San Francisco Symphony

11.08.13
Jeremy Denk
San Jose Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin

 

In September, the MacArthur Foundation gave one of its "genius" awards (along with a $625,000 payout) to pianist Jeremy Denk. For many listeners, it was the mere certification of a known fact: Denk, 43, is a musician who stands out, even in the cruelly rarefied world of classical music, where superhuman talent can barely get you through the door.

Thursday at Davies Symphony Hall, Denk was an animating presence, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. It was a great performance of a familiar piece. What made it so special? We're getting into murky territory here -- the intangibles of musicianship, personality and charisma, and how they mix -- but Denk can bring such clear focus and tingly zest to a performance that it lifts up, transforms.

 

Mozart's piece is sly and shadowy, darting from major to minor and tumbling from key center to key center. Denk's entrance in the Allegro maestoso was bright, confident, playful -- "Here I am!" -- and, with it, a hand-and-glove conversation with the orchestra commenced. The performance was unencumbered: streaming piano lines of pearly tone or music-box delicacy; a quasi-Marseillaise march tossed back and forth between the piano and various winds; or a trill by Denk that somehow enlivened the whole, buoyant ensemble. His cadenza felt like an improvisation.

The slow Andante was balletic -- seeming to expand onto some other, larger stage of the mind -- with Denk as lead dancer, playing with the conductor's pliant tempos, partnering with this and that member of the orchestra. The pianist's crisp rhythmic drive in the finale was infectious. Experience it yourself: The program repeats through Sunday. (And, if you aren't already familiar with Denk, man of the hour, you might enjoy his occasional New Yorker essays, his "Think Denk" blog at http://jeremydenk.net/blog, or his illuminating new "Goldberg Variations" recording on Nonesuch.)

The program began with Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, which Tilson Thomas and the orchestra recorded just a couple of years ago, and which they performed Thursday with fine-spun intimacy: its sighing rises and falls, its flurry-to-a-storm crescendos. After intermission, Mozart made for a neat bookend.

There was another pairing within this very strong program: Steven Mackey's "Eating Greens" (from 1994) and Aaron Copland's "Symphonic Ode" (composed in 1932, revised in 1956). Mackey followed Beethoven, while Copland followed Mozart. But the connection between the two burly American works was impossible to miss.

Drawing its title from a painting by Margaret Leonard, Mackey's piece also is inspired by Henri Matisse and such musical iconoclasts as Harry Partch and Thelonious Monk, the composer has said. It's a musical quilt, filled with brash and rapid juxtapositions. And while it begins as a romp, quoting "Joy to the World" and Gershwin -- while having fun with exotic percussion effects, including a referee's whistle -- it turns nocturnal. It becomes a haunted hallucination for orchestra, broad and gripping, staggering through the darkness, with echoes of Mahler and Stravinsky -- and Copland.

What a work is Copland's "Symphonic Ode" -- "a big, craggy, American, skyscraper landscape piece," said Tilson Thomas. It is muscular and tightly wound, driven by relentless energy, and it points straight toward the pulsing and expanding structures of John Adams, who can be thorny and menacing in a similar manner. "Ode" speaks on more than one level: One hears mid-century America grappling with its role in the world, and one practically sees lonely, lost individuals, wandering the late-night streets of Manhattan.

Tilson Thomas and the orchestra, who recorded this provocative work in 1996, should record it again. They performed it Thursday with sensitivity and bracing power.