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Jeremy Denk & The SPCO

Works by Brahms and Mozart

This weekend’s concerts by pianist Jeremy Denk and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra offered audiences a rare opportunity to hear a guest artist play orchestral, chamber and solo pieces on the same program. Denk, a frequent collaborator with the SPCO, was recently named a MacArthur Fellow in recognition of his ascendancy as both a performer and an ambassador for classical music, and he lived up to his growing reputation in an engaging concert of works by Brahms and Mozart.

The first piece on the program was Brahms’s Piano Quintet, for which Denk was joined by three members of the SPCO — violinists Steven Copes and Ruggero Allifranchini and violist Maiya Papach — and guest cellist Peter Wiley. Among pieces for similar forces, Brahms’s quintet stands out for its balance between the piano and strings, a feature that Denk accentuated by placing himself behind the other players. After delicately weaving their way through the first two movements, the musicians turned in an attention-grabbing performance of the scherzo, with its off-kilter rhythms building toward an insistent climax featuring percussive playing by Denk and then coming to a sudden end. Both the shifting interplay of the first two movements and the intensity of the third returned in the finale, bringing the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

Denk owes much of his acclaim to his skills as a communicator, both through music and through words. After the intermission, he spoke about the next piece on the program, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25. In a fairly brief speech lightened by a bit of humor, Denk conveyed his enthusiasm for a piece he sees as focused on the relationship between light and darkness. One wishes more classical musicians would do this sort of thing. In any case, Denk’s comments were a helpful entry point into the concerto, especially first and third movements, which can come across as somewhat episodic. His reading of the piece also clearly shaped his compelling, harmonically meandering cadenza. Overall, Denk and the orchestra gave the piece a gracefully transparent and at the same time very human rendering.

I admit that I am not familiar enough with Mozart’s solo piano canon to identify Denk’s encore, but if his goal was to make this relatively short, slow movement sound like one of the most brilliant things the composer ever wrote, he succeeded. In its unpredictable twists and turns, the piece seemed almost improvised, yet at the same time very carefully assembled. In these last few minutes of the concert, Denk demonstrated once again his commitment to making music come alive.

Photo by Michael Wilson

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.