Pianist Jeremy Denk brings thrills, wit to DSO

03.14.09
Jeremy Denk
Detriot Free Press

Orchestra rises to guest soloist's gleeful challenge

There's a marvelous moment in the development section in the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 that can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Beethoven has already unlocked several surprising doors on his way to a new key and established fresh melodic and emotional terrain when the piano begins an otherworldly passage, soft and mysterious, of falling scales that suggest serene waterfalls.   Pianist Jeremy Denk was thrillingly alive to the possibilities of this magical episode on Thursday with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The music pulsated with drama, shifting dynamics and revelatory expression, as the pianist unearthed buried layers of meaning in what became a kind of concerto within a concerto. Add those eye-opening moments to countless similar details from Thursday's performance and they add up to the most viscerally exciting, emotionally absorbing and intellectually rich account of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto that I have ever heard in concert.

It's harvest time for Denk, a fast-rising 38-year-old American making his debut with the DSO under guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Denk has been turning heads locally for years through his authoritative appearances at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, where his repertoire has included mainstream works, modernist classics like Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata and new music by Leon Kirchner and others.

The pianist cuts a brainy but playful profile -- an impression reinforced not only by his entertaining blog at http://www.jeremydenk.net/, which mixes erudite musical talk with quirky ruminations on a musician's life, but also his penchant for high-concept ideas, such as building a recital program that pairs two of the most ginormous works in the repertoire: Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" and Charles Ives' "Concord Sonata."

What becomes especially clear in a staple like the Beethoven concerto is that beyond the lickety-split dexterity and control of color at Denk's command, he is always thinking his way through the music. He approaches the score as a blank slate, reconsidering every harmonic shift, melodic turn and rhythmic twist. Yet the results breathe with a spontaneity that gives the illusion of improvisation. It's a compelling gift.

On Thursday, he skipped through the rapid-fire opening with irresistible wit, underscoring Beethoven's impish humor in the trilling pirouettes and quick bursts of action. The wild cadenza was a symphony of theater. The slow movement unfolded with sublime patience and beauty. Denk went to town in the rambunctious finale, throwing offbeat accents around with gleeful abandon that were mimicked by the orchestra under Davis' alert baton.

After the audience went nuts, Denk offered an unusually substantive encore -- "The Alcotts" slow movement from Ives' "Concord Sonata." The music is an abstract tone painting that transforms an echo of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony into a transcendental dreamscape that climaxes in an explosion of ugly beauty.

The "Concord Sonata" belongs on the short list of the greatest music ever written by an American, and Denk played it so charismatically that I wouldn't have minded if the DSO had taken the rest of the night off so he could play the rest of the work.

But don't get the wrong idea. Davis had the DSO sounding sharp and engaged, and the rest of the program offered the varied pleasures of Edward Elgar's warmly lyrical and relaxed Serenade for Strings in E minor, Claude Debussy's atmospheric "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" (highlighted by a sumptuous flute solo by Sharron Wood Sparrow) and Stravinsky's fireball Symphony in Three Movements.

The latter, which the DSO hadn't played in 21 years, is a masterpiece, completed in 1945 and full of fierce rhythm and energy, syncopated pop and harmonic tang. Under Davis, the orchestra matched the composer's craggy power with plenty of its own.