October 2007

The Substitute

October 11, 2007 09:50

Jeremy Denk, substitute in question for an ailing Itzhak Perlman (details and author’s ensuing reaction to the news can be found here), strode onto the stage at San Francisco’s Davies Hall on Sunday afternoon and gave a rollicking, passionate performance of Beethoven’s Concerto no. 1 in C major. Goodbye misgivings over whether he could put on a good show, hello constricted chest, flushed cheeks and breathless anticipation over the next note and the next.

One of my favorite things about watching soloists is observing the way the music flows through them. You can see it clearly—an unconscious bob of the head, an angling of the chin, the way the shoulders move as they ride the swell of a musical wave. From the moment the orchestral tutti commenced, you could see the music course through Denk. He was one big Beethoven conduit, more so as he began to play. His passion and attention to interpretive detail came through particularly well in the first movement’s cadenza. It gripped me, literally. My quads began to ache. It gripped the entire audience; you could feel it—the absolute stillness of an enthralled crowd. He’d draw out the final lingering pianissimo notes of a phrase and there we were, three thousand units of baited breath, clenched muscles.

When he ended the long, emotive cadenza, after stretching out the last few notes, there was a palpable sense of release—Beethoven releasing Denk, he, in turn, releasing us. You could hear the audience rustling about, taking care of the business of breathing once again, nudging their bums back from the seat’s edge where they’d been perched. It was a reaction like something out of a movie—the soloist finishing with a flourish, the audience flung back into their seats, drained by the experience, the intensity of it all, like after great—am I allowed to use the word here?—sex. Honest, that’s what it felt like. It’s been twenty years since I touched a cigarette, but right then, boy, I’ll tell you what.

While I’ve enjoyed all the soloists whose performances I’ve caught at Davies Hall, not since Gil Shaham’s performance a year and a half ago have I felt such palpable energy and enthusiasm emanating from a soloist. It was an experience all the more enjoyable because the artist, it seemed, derived equal pleasure and energy from the music itself, from the orchestra’s contribution in its creation.

A humorous aside, if I might. Having penned my effusive praise, I paused to surf the Net in order to find commentaries that might echo my sentiments on his passion, his concentration, particularly during the opening orchestral tutti. What I found was a blog by Denk himself, commenting on that auspicious moment. Only, as it turns out, it wasn’t as auspicious as I’d thought. Following is an excerpt of his entertaining, irreverent blog entry, presented quiz-style, about his week in San Francisco.

Question Five

The opening tutti of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto is rather long. (This pianist takes revenge for this during the cadenza heh heh.) You stride out there, all blustery and full of confidence, and then the orchestra just keeps on going, doing Beethoven’s C-major-ish version of the Energizer Bunny. What do you do to pass the time?

a) Breathe deeply and imagine the forces of harmony moving in great tectonic plates; b) Glance meaningfully at orchestra members, which may irritate them; c) Fantasize about gnocchi from Union Square Cafe (don’t forget to come in!); d) Wonder what the piano will sound like, since you haven’t been able to try it out for hours; e)Reminisce over [French bulldog] Noe’s redolent saliva.

The whole post is quite entertaining; must have been that Left Coast air and attitude permeating his aura. To read the whole October 9th blog post (well worth your time, and thanks to Emily Liz for mentioning the blog in the original discussion thread), go here. And then go listen to him perform and tell me whether you needed a cigarette afterwards.

© 2007 Terez Rose

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