In case you haven’t heard, Jeremy Denk recenly won a MacArthur genius grant. As did our very own Patricia Hampl, not recently, but well remembered. Ah, genius in relative youth! And I am thinking of Mozart, and his divine sonorities, bred by revolt and acquiescence toward dictator Papa, aka Leopold.
Jeremy Denk is a fine pianisto, and just maybe an even finer writer. So I am led to believe by hearing him speak, then play piano at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra this Saturday. (He has been published in The New Yorker and his blog, “think Denk” has been selected by the Library of Congress to be part of its digital archive. When he speaks as he did Saturday night with SPCO chairman Bruce Coppick, he is witty, just enough humble, and insightful about the two works he would be playing: a Brahms piano quintet, and a Mozart concerto from the most productive ten years before the five opera years, before early death.
Brahms destroyed so many of his drafts we will never know his full oeuvre. He also rearranged the quintet from a work for two pianos (probably intending his dear friend Clara Schumann as one of the duo) and at her suggestion replaced one piano with a quartet of strings. Brahms has never been among my favorite composers–too dense, not sufficiently melodic–but Denk and the SPCO strings (including a wonderfully sonorous cello played by Peter Wiley) held my complete attention. Denk subdued the piano (which is after all a percussion instrument) to blend well, and the strings took excellent turns helping to stir up the depths.
Then came the Mozart with a much fuller orchestra, and the huge piano with its guts exposed, at which Denk sat with his back to the audience–“No slight intended,” he told us. I assumed he would be signaling the orchestra at key moments.
When I took music lessons in Charleston, South Carolina, in the years before general air-conditioning, Mozart and Haydn were the best I could do. Meaning, I had the physical dexterity to run the notes fast and clear, and the guidance from my rather broken-down music teacher to make small, telling deviations from strict time, for emotional effect. But only over the years as a listener have I attained a sense of what constitutes a truly bravura performance. For my money Christian Zacharias, who often performs with the SPCO as both conductor and pianisto, offers just such performances.
One of our finest poets (and occasional prose writers), Donald Justice also took up the topic of music lessons. In his slim volume The Sunset Maker (1987) I find echoes of my own musical years in South Carolina. We both had teachers and ambitions that soared beyond the dry clack of palm fronds, beyond the department store magic of canisters carrying money into upper registers.
“Busts if the great composers glimmered in niches,
Pale stars. Poor Mrs. Snow, who could forget her,
Calling the time out in that hushed falsetto?” (Mrs. Snow)
“on the piano top,
a nest of souvenirs:
Flowers, old programs, a broken fan” (Busted Dreams)
“–And sometimes she succumbed
To the passion of a nocturne,
The fury of the climax
Ascending through the folds
Of secret and abandoned flesh
Into those bitten finger-ends” (Those Tropic Afternoons)
Since then, I’ve developed a theory that the education of American musicians currently emphasizes precision at the expense of inclusive expressiveness (even if secret and decayed) . Jeremy Denk’s Mozart did nicely when part of the orchestra, but when his piano was on its own, it became huge and out of sync. Remember, a piano is a percussion instrument. When played with percussive speed, all I could do was hold my breath to see if Denk would hit all the notes. His passages did not blend, They shouted: “I’m bigger, I’m best.” When he tried connoting heart-stopping emotion, he lingered with such determined emphasis that emotion dissolved into flamboyance.
European-trained musicians like Christian Zacharias do not aim for such WOW, such rigorous, cliff-hanging, performances. Especially with a composer like Mozart whose own instrument, a pianoforte, had not the excessive force of steel. Instead, they tend to draw out musical lines in lyrical and nuanced ways until an entire ensemble, orchestra and soloist, become joined in a dream of musical possibility, which reaches out and wraps the audience in its embrace. Then, I sigh with completion, and thank the stars for a glimpse of beauty and generosity that includes us all.