Return of the (brilliant) native: Jeremy Denk and Pro Musica

Jeremy Denk

We’re only a few weeks into 2020, but pianists appearing here for the rest of the year will be hard-pressed to match the virtuosity, intelligence, and joy that Las Cruces-reared Jeremy Denk brought to Santa Fe Pro Musica’s Journeys concert on Jan. 25.

Denk was the impressive soloist in Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor and, in a last-minute change of plans, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major, which replaced Robert Schumann’s Concert Allegro with Introduction. The switch created the opportunity to hear one of today’s most acclaimed pianists in a wider variety of styles and resulted in a better-sequenced program, which was led by Pro Musica music director Thomas O’Connor.

The program change moved Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major from finale to first up, and it took a little while to truly coalesce. The opening fast movement felt leaden and the subsequent andante could have benefited from a bit more charm and sense of forward motion. The minuet and trio that form the third movement were nicely energized, with the minuet having an inviting rhythmic snap and the group’s excellent wind players highlighted in the trio. The final movement effectively embodied Haydn’s tempo marking of very fast and vivacious.

While Denk’s reputation for musical intelligence and keyboard skills is well deserved, what is most immediately striking about hearing and seeing him perform is his spontaneity. It’s the visceral sense that his music is being created on the spot, and that repeated passages are alive through slight variations in rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics.

The Mozart concerto was the high point of the concert as a result. It’s a terrific but seldom-played piece in which the composer created a sense of scope and significance using forces that seem modest on paper: no clarinets, trumpets, or drums in the orchestra, and just a single flute. The work includes many striking modulations to unusual keys — which were beautifully shaped by both player and orchestra — and the themes passed back and forth between them had a living, evolving “call-and-response” quality.

Denk is on record as saying he suffers from green and red chile withdrawal when he’s elsewhere for too long, and Santa Fe audiences can be forgiven for hoping another bout afflicts him soon.

Composer Melinda Wagner, who won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, was present for her Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries Inspired by Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 by J.S. Bach. It’s one of the six “New Brandenburgs” that were commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra between 2006 and 2010.

The piece successfully honored the spirit and structure of Bach’s great concerto grosso, in which a solo violin and two flutes are juxtaposed against a small group of strings and harpsichord, while offering

an impressive variety of appealing sonorities. Wagner’s only change to Bach’s orchestra was the addition of a celeste, which was used to great effect in the ethereal central movement, “Moon Ache.” The vigorous and challenging solo violin part was played with aplomb by Pro Musica concertmaster Stephen Redfield.

Mendelssohn wrote his first piano concerto at the age of 21, when he had fallen in love with a pianist and composer named Delphine von Schauroth. The romance fizzled out, but performing the concerto remained one of Mendelssohn’s calling cards for the rest of his short career. The piece is full of youthful exuberance and the soloist’s part makes extensive use of the additional octave that piano makers had just started adding to the evolving instrument’s upper register.

Like his later and better-known Violin Concerto in E Minor, this piano concerto reflects the composer’s fascination with linking the movements as seamlessly as possible. It also has some of the faults of youth in the welter of musical ideas that aren’t developed with much rigor. This keeps the concerto out of the top tier, but it makes for a very effective program finale, especially when rendered with as much energy and affection as it was here.

“Don’t get too excited,” Denk wryly admonished the audience when it started applauding his announcement that he’d like to play some Richard Wagner for an encore. He then launched into a rip-roaring transcription of the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from the opera Tannhäuser, but not the well-known version by Franz Liszt. Instead, we got a highly syncopated one by the great American Jazz Age stride pianist Donald Lambert, who was known as the “Jersey Rocket” for his flamboyant playing. Musical and audience excitement both ensued.

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