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Jeremy Denk plays Stravinsky under John Adams at Carnegie Hall (May 10)

Jeremy Denk has enjoyed a high-profile spring, collaborating with composer/conductor John Adams to perform Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds on both sides of the Atlantic.  After their account of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra, numerous critics singled Denk’s performance out for praise, the Daily Telegraph noting his “Chopinesque grace,” and the Arts Desk admiring his “astounding sense of fantasy.”  Now, as a grand finale, Denk and Adams reunite to reprise the concerto, this time with Ensemble ACJW, at New York’s Carnegie Hall (May 10).  Before the month is out, the versatile pianist also makes a second, more intimate New York appearance, joining cellist Steven Isserlis and friends for a family concert – “Songs and Spectacles: The Life and Music of Schubert” – at the 92nd Street Y (May 23).

The Concerto for Piano and Winds (1923-24, rev. 1950) is one of the mainstays of Stravinsky’s neoclassical output.  Having composed the concerto for his own use, he performed it more than 40 times in the five years after its premiere under Serge Koussevitzky.  Of the innovative scoring, Stravinsky wrote: “The short, crisp dance character of the [first movement], engendered by the percussion of the piano, led to the idea that a wind ensemble would suit the piano better than any other combination.  In contrast to the percussiveness of the piano, the winds prolong the piano’s sound as well as providing the human element of respiration.”  The concerto influenced many later works, notably Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, in a performance of which the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini considered Denk a “brilliant soloist,” commenting:

Hearing Mr. Denk’s bracing, effortlessly virtuosic and utterly joyous performance, one would never guess how phenomenally difficult the piano part is.”

Like Stravinsky before him, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams is also a “skilled and dynamic conductor” (New York Times).  As performers, both Adams and Denk consistently win praise for their facility with a broad range of repertoire; the New York Times admired Adams’s “versatility on the podium,” while the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns wrote of Denk:

“With a supreme command of the piano allowing endlessly varied color, touch, and chord voicing, all possibilities are seemingly open to him.  And all possibilities are imaginable, thanks to a fine intellect.”

This assessment of Denk’s abilities is one with which Adams himself would concur; following their appearances together in March, the composer/conductor reported:

“Doing the Stravinsky with Jeremy Denk was pure pleasure. He seems to be able to play anything, making it feel effortless and finding the essence of what the composer imagines.  In his hands the piece felt urbane, cheeky, mixing the wit and stylishness of the outer movements with the elevated lyricism of the Bach-inspired cantilenas of the slow movement.”

For Denk’s debut with the London Symphony, the two presented the concerto in both Paris and London, where the Daily Telegraph declared that the “best of the three [opening works] in terms of performance was Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds, a grandly Handelian example of neo-classical motoric energy that can easily sound ponderous, but here was full of light and dancing energy – and also a surprising Chopinesque grace, thanks to soloist Jeremy Denk.”  The Independent observed how the pianist “led by example, lending a distinct touch of the Oscar Petersons to the central diversion of Stravinsky’s exquisitely Bachian Largo.”

Now, as spring draws to a close, Denk and Adams reunite to bring their Stravinsky interpretation home to the States.  This time they are supported by Ensemble ACJW, which has been praised by the New York Times for its “polished performance” and “consistently beautiful playing,” and comprises young professionals under the joint auspices of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute.  After a Philadelphia engagement on May 9, Denk and Adams make their Carnegie Hall appearance on May 10, reprising for the last time this season the concerto with which they serenaded the two European capitals.  The program also features Andriessen’s De Staat and Adams’s own contemporary classic Son of Chamber Symphony.

Denk has previously joined Steven Isserlis, author of Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled His Wig, for many of the British cellist’s family chamber concerts.  Held at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, each presentation offers an introduction to the life and music of one of the great composers; most recently, in January’s “Melodious Master”, Denk helped introduce the life and work of Gabriel Fauré.  On Sunday, May 23, for the last of the current series, it is the turn of Schubert, about whom Denk recently posted on his humorous blog, Think Denk, “He’s full-blooded and alive, he’s home for me, he’s the emotional trailer park where I live”!  With Jennifer Frautschi on violin and Judy Kuhn’s narration – not to mention their own habitual charm and exceptional performances – Denk and Isserlis join forces to present “Songs and Spectacles: The Life and Music of Schubert”: a family-friendly introduction to the man who couldn’t see without his glasses but whose songs could see into your soul. 

Jeremy Denk: May engagements 

May 9 at 3pm, Philadelphia, PA
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts (Perelman Theater)
Ensemble ACJW / John Adams
Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds
Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony
Andriessen: De Staat
May 10 at 6:00pm, New York, NY
Carnegie Hall (Zankel)
Ensemble ACJW / John Adams
Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds
Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony
Andriessen: De Staat
May 23 at 3pm, New York, NY
92nd Street Y (Tisch Center)
Steven Isserlis, artistic director and cello; Jennifer Frautschi, violin; Judy Kuhn, narrator
(Additional artists to be announced)
Songs and Spectacles: The Life and Music of Schubert 


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© 21C Media Group, April 2010

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