Review: Denk throws changeups in an offbeat program |

Review: Denk throws changeups in an offbeat program

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Jeremy Denk admitted that “a few too many sakes in an Aspen restaurant” might have motivated the lineup he fielded for his Aspen Music Festival appearance Saturday evening at Harris Hall.

“You might be wondering what these pieces have in common,” he said before settling in to play Stravinsky’s lively Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Janacek’s Capriccio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. “The answer is nothing, except they are all among my very favorite pieces to play.”

Both the Stravinsky and Janacek pieces use some of the strangest instrumentation, he noted. Few, if any, piano concertos completely avoid calling for a string section. Even fewer works for the piano by famous composers use Janacek’s ensemble.

“This is certainly the greatest piece ever written for flute, bass flute, trumpets, trombones, euphonium and piano (left hand),” he deadpanned.

Moreover, none of the pieces presented Denk alone, as might be expected in a concert titled “A Recital by Jeremy Denk.” But then, Denk relished the unconventional. It’s what makes him such an exciting musician to hear. And his advocacy of eccentric music can result in performances that make you shake your head and say, “Wow.”

Saturday night was one of those. The concerto found him in a jolly mood, practically butt-dancing to jagged rhythms, Stravinsky inspired by nothing less than ragtime piano rolls and the fox trot. In the score, the piano and band play off each other constantly, each filling in the blanks for the other. Denk reveled in jumping in feet-first each time the ball came his way.

Christopher James Lees, winner of the Aspen Conducting Prize for 2013, led the ensemble and got the tight rhythmic interjections to fit cleanly with the piano throughout, even if the playing could have been crisper.

In the second movement, where the music becomes gentler, Denk found a lovely sense of delicacy and managed to make it feel like it was hiding some unseen energy. The finale put the cap on without losing the thread.

In the Capriccio, the bass flute and euphonium players (unnamed in the program) took full advantage of their solo opportunities to add depth and diversity to the piece. Like most of this composer’s works, it speaks in a highly chromatic, sometimes dissonant, language as it wrestles with tonality, but it still ends up in a big, fat major chord at the very end. Perversely, Janacek seems intent throughout to make the pianist play at the high end (normally played by the right hand) in this left-hand-only piece. Denk not only made it all seem like child’s play, he made use of his right hand to flip back the page in a minor disagreement with the page turner about when exactly to act. (Also to help conduct.)

Faculty stalwarts David Halen (violin) and Michael Mermagen (cello) joined Denk in the piano trio. The muscular but refined effort was notable for how smoothly the melodic lines glided from one instrument to the next and the gratifying balances they found in the harmonies. This was no-nonsense Beethoven that refused to push or pull on the music, letting it emerge with its energy and meaning intact.

In Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program, conducted by music director Robert Spano, the “modern” first half also outshone the more familiar music after intermission. “Prospero’s Rooms” by Christopher Rouse opened proceedings with 10 minutes of fascinating, colorful, dense, dark, eerie music that would fit perfectly in a horror movie. Then Wu Han brought her penchant for bringing out every phrase’s individual character to Britten’s early Piano Concerto. By contrast, Mozart’s magnificent Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter” never quite lifted off. A penchant for obvious slowing-downs and speeding-ups did the first movement no favors. The inner movement Menuetto moved more nimbly, and the lovely Andante Cantabile sang sweetly. But the payoff in the finale foundered as rhythms blurred and the music lost the gracefulness that characterized the middle movements. In welcoming a sparse crowd to Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert, festival CEO Alan Fletcher held up a program and noted that it was the featured solo piece of the day, the Britten Violin Concerto, that inspired the Robert Motherwell painting used on the cover, and the festival’s theme for this season, “Conscience and Beauty.”

Both the concerto and the painting, part of his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, focus on lives lost in the Spanish Civil War. Violinist Daniel Hope delivered a soulful, musically complex and vivid performance, referencing the cries from the gut of flamenco that are in the heart of the music. Especially in the soft, sobbing final pages, he drew magnificently expressive sounds from his instrument.

Michael Stern’s sensitive conducting supported the soloist with a steady pace in the passacaglia finale. Pace was an issue in Elgar’s Enigma Variations in the second half. Stern chose a plodding tempo for the opening Andante and first variation. Though he picked it up to normal for several variations, he returned to a glacial pulse and, curiously, resisted Elgar’s marked legato (in one place, “legatissimo”) for the famous “Nimrod.” The result was a sporadically rewarding performance, highlighted by Joaquin Valdepenas’ floated solos in the penultimate variation and sonorous brass statements throughout.

Not to miss in the coming days

“Bounce,” a world premiere from Adam Schoenberg in his approachable modernist style, enlivens an Aspen Philharmonic concert Wednesday evening that also featured pianist Jonathan Biss playing Beethoven and Spano conducting. Later Wednesday, the American Brass Quintet offers its signature mix of madrigals, canzoni and contemporary pieces.

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