More Than a Think Denk

by Sedgwick Clark

Last Wednesday night (2/16) the American pianist Jeremy Denk performed—”relived” would be more accurate—a bracing recital of Ligeti’s Études and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Last May he was soloist in an ideal performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, with John Adams conducting the ACJW Ensemble. In numerous live and recorded performances over 45 years, I had thought the Concerto an ungrateful piece, gnarled and humorless. What a difference rhythmic security, seamless transitions, and puckish humor make—nothing less than a revelation!

It was these sparkling qualities that caused jaws to drop and eyes to crinkle in Denk’s brilliant rendering of the finger-busting Ligeti pieces. Fistfuls of notes dovetailed with seeming effortlessness, allowing an ideal balance of virtuosity with the composer’s inherent wit and warmth. No less important was the piano tone—clear but never brittle. Those same qualities distinguished the GoldbergVariations. Once past an overly slow introductory Aria, the 30 variations and concluding Aria da Capo clearly delighted a sold-out house. Another addition to my wee “don’t miss” artist list.

He’s also recorded both Ives Piano Sonatas for his own label, which I haven’t heard but will ASAP. It’s available, and also a more recent Bach Partitas CD, on his Web site, Think Denk.

His next New York appearance is as guest pianist in the Ives Piano Trio with the Ensemble ACJW at Le Poisson Rouge on March 20.

Adams and Nixon
And speaking of John Adams, he’s been in town lately to conduct the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of his first opera, Nixon in China. I remember a colleague returning from the 1987 premiere in Houston and declaring that it was the best opera he had ever seen. The Nonesuch recording and memory of Robert Spano’s 1999 Brooklyn Philharmonic concert performance at BAM whetted my appetite for the Met production, which I saw on February 9. (Spano was there too.)

Why, then, my disappointment? Because of the cartoonish sets, basically a duplication of the original production? The not-always-precise playing in Act I (it improved later)? Or the failure of the original Nixon, James Maddalena, to project in the Met’s vast space? The others sang effectively. However, whether the result of Alice Goodman’s libretto or Peter Sellars’s direction, I couldn’t hack Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly) as Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Smog?) or Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) as a caricature out of Oh! Calcutta! Madame Mao (Kathleen Kim) and Chou En-lai (Russell Braun) came off best as characters and performers. The New York Times‘s former editor Max Frankel was on that China trip, and in a fascinating February 10 op-ed piece he discussed how Nixon in China jibed with reality. While recognizing the importance of artistic license he ultimately agreed with Shakespeare, “who chose a century as the minimal safe distance between actual events and his iambic-speaking kings.”

I caught the live HD broadcast three days later in East Hampton for another look. The differences between sitting in Row I in the orchestra section of the cavernous Met auditorium and watching a screen in an intimate movie theater—at least in Nixon—were all in the broadcast’s favor: The close-ups of the singers lent far greater immediacy to the story, and the singers were all perfectly audible—most conspicuously James Maddalena, who, I was reliably informed by a colleague attending the performance, was no less difficult to hear than three days before. (So why hadn’t the body mikes boosted his voice adequately in the house?) The production benefited too. It’s reasonable to believe that a (or perhaps even the) major concern of Gelb-era set designs is filmability. The original director, Peter Sellars, had changed a few things—none of them for the better, reported Patrick J. Smith in his Musical review. One of Sellars’s new inspirations was to further vulgarize the libretto’s satirical portrait of Henry Kissinger; interestingly, in the HD broadcast, also directed by Sellars, the cameras averted their eyes during the most offensive moment, when the Kissinger character pumps his hips vigorously at his Chinese translator.

But if I can’t join most of my colleagues in praising the Met’s Nixon, Adams the conductor continues to impress. He led the Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last Friday (2/18) in City Noir, his affectionate tribute to moody1940s film scores that he composed for Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural gala as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October 2009. The LA team performed it at Lincoln Center last May, and I enjoyed it even more under the composer’s purposeful baton. He prefaced his work with a taut, expressive reading of Strauss’s Don Juan, reminding me of Fritz Reiner’s 1954 Chicago recording in its near-identical timing and several dramatic details, and Bartók’s rollicking Dance Suite. In both performances I was struck by rhythmic niceties I’d never heard before—clear as could be in the score but ignored by numerous big-name conductors.

Who Says Classical Music is Dead?
I asked the Times‘s Anthony Tommasini last night at the opening of Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope festival if his mail had increased since the end of his “Top Ten Greatest Composers” series, which I wrote about in my last blog (2/4). Over 2,700, he replied—1,200 more since the final article ran. Dear Congressmen and women: I’ll bet they vote too.

Looking Forward
My week’s scheduled concerts:

2/23 Avery Fisher Hall. London Symphony/Valery Gergiev. Mahler: Symphony No. 7.

2/24 Alice Tully Hall. Tully Scope Festival. Axiom. Feldman: Rothko Chapel; Bass Clarinet and Percussion. Kurtág: Hommage à R. Sch; Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova.

2/25 mat. Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Paavo Järvi; Janine Jansen, violin. Tüür: Aditus. Britten: Violin Concerto. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5.

2/25 Avery Fisher Hall. London Symphony/Valery Gergiev. Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

2/26 Walter Reade Theater. 2:00: Mahler documentary featuring Alma and Anna Mahler, Henry-Louis de la Grange.  4:30: Mahler interpreters, Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein; complete Symphony No. 4 with Vienna Philharmonic/Bernstein and soprano Edith Mathis.

2/27 mat. Avery Fisher Hall. London Symphony/Valery Gergiev. Mahler: Symphony No. 9 and Adagio from Symphony No. 10.

2/28 Carnegie Hall. Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä; Lisa Batiashvili, violin. Beethoven: Violin Concerto. Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7.

3/1 Carnegie Hall. Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit; Vadim Repin, violin. Berlioz: Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict. James MacMillan: Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

3/2 Zankel Hall. Making Music: all James MacMillan

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