Jeremy Denk — Image via

Bach & More With Jeremy Denk

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

After helping the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra open its season with a rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue last weekend, pianist and SPCO artistic partner Jeremy Denk returned this weekend to lead a program exploring the many sides of rhythm. The catalyst was the music of J.S. Bach, which Denk and the SPCO juxtaposed with works by Stravinsky and other 20th Century composers who used Bach’s influence as a jumping-off point for their own forays into the possibilities of syncopation, polyrhythms, and rhythmic flexibility. It proved to be the best kind of conceptual program, in which the concept remains in service of the music and the music consistently engages and delights.

The two halves of the concert had the same structure: one piece for orchestra, two for solo piano, and then one of Bach’s keyboard concertos. The first half opened with a colorful rendition of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto, which benefited greatly from the transparency of both the performance and the concert hall’s acoustics. In the second half, the orchestra gave us Stravinsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 1 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, with the strings handling the prelude and clarinetist Jonathan Cohen and bassoonist Charles Ullery turning in a playfully riveting performance of the fugue.

Deviating a bit from the announced program, Denk chose pieces from four different composers for his solo contributions, three of them influenced by the briefly popular genre of ragtime. First came Stravinsky’s take on the genre, a transcription of a movement from The Soldier’s Tale, aptly described by Denk as “cubist”; then Hindemith’s dissonant, percussive version, from his piano suite 1922. In the second half, Denk played a fiendishly intricate canon by Conlon Nancarrow, with two parts in a tempo ratio of 7:5, and somehow managed to make it swing. (Of course, 7:5 is simple for Nancarrow, who was known to use ratios like e:π.) Finally, to lighten things up a bit, Denk gave us William Bolcom’s moving Graceful Ghost Rag, illustrating a more flexible side of rhythm.

The two Bach concertos — No. 4 in A major and No. 2 in E major — were the twin centerpieces of the concert, and Denk and the SPCO displayed great sensitivity to the emotional narratives of both pieces. It helps that they played them through with very little pausing between movements, allowing each piece to stand as a coherent whole. Denk gave beautiful renditions of Bach’s melodic slow movements — especially the Siciliano from No. 2 — while he and the orchestra skillfully navigated the twists and turns of the fast movements. Overall, these were performances that breathed, in that vital way that keeps the human element at the front and center of Bach’s undeniably cerebral and intricate music.

After some much-deserved applause, Denk wrapped things up with an emotionally subtle Bach encore, bringing an end to a wonderfully conceived and executed concert that undoubtedly left audiences looking forward to his return in January, plus more Bach and Stravinsky — of which there will be plenty this season — from the SPCO.

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.