Talents by the score

Pianist Jeremy Denk, who joins Santa Fe Pro Musica for Journeys on Saturday, Jan. 25 and Sunday, Jan. 26, has a reputation for being one of the smartest and most thoughtful performers in classical music. He even has a 2013 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” awarded for “his unmatched musical ability paired with an unusual eloquence with words.”

In naming him 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year, Musical America magazine said, “Ask the major talents he has worked with and they’ll tell you that Jeremy Denk is an original — a player with both insight and imagination who nevertheless places his formidable technique, intelligence, and musicality in service to the score.”

He’s the soloist in two pieces here: Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Robert Schumann’s Concert Allegro with Introduction. Both play to one of Denk’s many strengths — an ability to discover compositional gravity in works that most players treat solely as opportunities for surface flashiness.

Mendelssohn, a superb pianist, received great praise during his short life. But soon after his death, he began to be viewed as a porcelain figurine whose bloodless music was pleasant and technically adept but little more. George Bernard Shaw infamously referred to his “kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio mongering.”

Today, Mendelssohn’s works, including this concerto, are being re-evaluated for their importance in bridging the classical and romantic eras.

Schumann never suffered the wholesale dismissal that Mendelssohn did, but his Concert Allegro was traditionally seen as something of an oddity. Written for his composer-pianist wife Clara as an anniversary present, it showcased her keyboard skills in a virtuoso part that was backed by a simple, unassuming orchestration. For Denk and conductor Thomas O’Connor, the challenge is to find the soul in these pieces that transcends flying fingers.

Melinda Wagner, whose Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries Inspired by J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 opens the program, was one of six composers commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in its New Brandenburgs project. Each composer was assigned one of the Brandenburgs to use as a model; Wagner got No. 4 and drew her inspiration from the fact that bach means stream or brook. Little Moonhead reflects its upstream source through cascading notes and flowing harmonies.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s London Symphony No. 104 closes the program. “I always take joy in conducting a Haydn symphony,” O’Connor says. “His mastery is like that of a great writer who eliminates unneeded words and creates a flow for the reader.”

Pro Musica’s Journeys runs at 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 W. San Francisco St.). Tickets are $20-$100; 505-988-4640, sfpromusica.org

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