(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What's cool - Denk an Musik

Accessible high-brow

Like most American's, cartoons served as my introduction to classical music. Even now, the only thing that dilutes my association between Elmer Fudd and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is an occasional flashback to Apocalypse Now. While I am much more familiar with contemporary popular music, I can still appreciate classical music, especially when a virtuoso performance is involved. The thing is that, while those great musicians are always impressive and the music can be very moving, I don't tend to find them particularly entertaining. I'll be the first to admit that I'm an ignorant cultural Philistine, but most of those performers are so focused on their playing that they convey little more than their intensity and perhaps a hint of their personal appreciation for the power of the music itself. That brings me to a radically different experience this week.

Pianist Jeremy Denk blew me away with a solo program at the Griffin Concert Hall at Colorado State University. Impressing me with his considerable technical ability was no particular challenge, instead -- or rather, in addition -- it was the combination of his physicality, his interaction with the audience, and the structure of his program that challenged my expectations. He began the show with Haydn's Sonata in C Major, H.XVI:50, which did a lot to define his persona. Haydn's music often reflects his sense of humor and Denk capitalized on that with his approach. His movements and facial expressions were large, humorously acting out his performance. Speedy sections seemed almost to slip away from him, but then he'd steel himself and attack the piano with greater ferocity only to fall under the spell of a quieter, more delicate section of the piece. Even as he flirted with caricature, it never distracted from his dexterity or perfect sense of dynamics. It was a knife-edged balance between the brilliance of his technical skills and his humanity.

He deepened that connection when he moved into the next section of the program, which mixed a set of pieces by Franz Schubert and selections from On the Overgrown Path by Leoš Janáček. As he explained his rationale for this iTunes shuffle of compositions, he spoke of the connections that he had found between these two fairly different men, rooted in Eastern European interpretation of major and minor scales, similar uses of ambiguity, and ultimately a single note that grabbed his attention. His casual lecture walked the audience through this idea, using excerpts to show the musical thread that stretched across the 80 odd years separating these composers. Aside from providing the context to appreciate his intent, Denk's lack of condescension leveled the playing field for neophytes and aficionados alike.

When he began playing through these pieces, it was easy to hear the points he had made. And even without the broad humor he displayed during the Haydn, the visual impact of his stage presence loomed large during this performance as well. His body interpreted the work of producing this music, making it clear that this was not effortless, but it was highly directed. Where some performers are fixated on economy of motion, Denk appeared to be no more economical than necessary. His left hand might raise up high and create the tension of expectation, waiting for it to swoop back down to the keys. His fingers were a blur relative to his relatively static hand position as they zipped through a trill of notes, but then his whole arm might soften as the music became less demanding. Oftentimes, I'll close my eyes at a concert to shut out distractions as I listen to the music, but I was unwilling to do that here because I didn't want to miss the extra dimension that Denk added to his show.

The second section of the program featured Mozart and Schumann, with the latter providing a great opportunity for Denk to show off his amazing technical chops with some lightning fast fluid runs. It was an exhilarating treat to witness, but his engaging performance made an even deeper impression. Think about music? Sure, I'm ready for that. 

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