Sometimes there’s just too darned much talking at classical concerts. Whether it’s welcoming the crowd, thanking the donors and pleading for more contributions, or explicating what’s about to happen in the music, all that verbiage gets tiresome.
Yet along comes a musician like Jeremy Denk who’s almost as good with words as he is at playing the piano. Denk made his third appearance at the Union College Concert Series on Friday night and offered rather extensive remarks throughout the night. Though he’s widely known for his blog, I don’t recall him chatting at all in previous appearances.
Actually I’d had my fill long before he was done, despite his natural sense of humor, occasional references to pop culture, and illuminating use of musical examples that were both played and sung. But there was a terrific moment in the concert that wouldn’t have happened if he’d not prepared the audience. They responded to a piece with laughter. How rare is that?
It came at the end of Ligeti’s Etude No. 1, the first of a knotty set of works by the Hungarian composer who died in 2006. Denk briefly described the structure or inspiration of each of the pieces and also made clear how tough they were to play. By no means was that opening etude a joke piece. It was craggy and hard edged and kind of explodes at the end. And somehow Denk gave the audience both the knowledge and the permission to enjoy it.
The evening’s program was based on the idea of variations. It opened with two Bach toccatas and continued with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, Op. 35. The succession of short form pieces felt kind of choppy and made one restless during the more open ended finale, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111.
But the hushed Arietta and Cantabile passages of the sonata, which linger in the treble, reached a sublime state. Those were just some of the many times when Denk’s range of touch was amazing. The Bach had clear voicing without being brittle. When he switched to Beethoven, it was like he had a different instrument or had added on some new bass notes. The sound became robust and mighty. The Ligeti pushed technical and sonic matters into a whole other realm — one where Denk was fully in command and had the audience happily following along.
Previously on MyBigGayEars: