Audiences at this weekend’s concerts by the Spokane Symphony at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox enjoyed an exciting glimpse into at least one aspect of classical music when Jeremy Denk walked onstage. Denk, a MacArthur fellow, was named 2014’s instrumentalist of the year by Musical America magazine. Watching and hearing him join the orchestra in Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra made plain the reason for these awards.
Ever since Franz Liszt took Europe by storm in the 1830s, pianists have had to grapple with the image of the Romantic virtuoso Liszt created for himself. This fictional character is not a mere musician, but an amalgam of oracle, martyr and priest. In his personal life, Liszt was an urbane personality and generous friend, but onstage, he became an object of demonic possession, receiving musical instructions from both heaven and hell.
Many men and a few women have assumed this role successfully, while others (Van Cliburn is a notable example) have been crushed by it. To contemporary pianists, the problem with the Lisztian model is that it is 200 years old, and almost impossible to reconcile with the realities of modern life.
Jeremy Denk may be the paradigm shift they have been waiting for.
To begin with, he addresses the piano with absolute relaxation. Denk appears never to think of himself, but only of the music, each bar of which he greets as though for the first time, with amazement and delight. He does not stare obsessively at his hands, or gaze heavenward for inspiration, but is ever checking on what the conductor and his fellow musicians are up to, eager to see what will come next. This spontaneous approach is suggestive of the great band pianists of the 1930s and ’40s, figures like Jess Stacy and Teddy Wilson, not of the inheritors of the mantle of Liszt.
The Ravel Concerto is jazzy, but it is not jazz. At no point is the soloist invited to improvise. As he revealed in the master class he gave Friday afternoon, Denk prepares every bar he intends to play down to the minutest detail. Such mastery allows him to play with complete freedom and spontaneity. This quality was equally evident in the encore, the Allemande from Partita No. 4 by J.S. Bach.
Flanking the Ravel Concerto on the program were Three Interludes from The Sacrifice, an opera by contemporary Scottish composer John MacMillan, and the Symphony No 1 in E minor by Jean Sibelius. While these two rather serious works may seem to sort oddly with the vivacious Ravel, the performance was energetic, brilliant and satisfying.
MacMillan’s Three Interludes demonstrate that a gifted composer can forge a unique and distinctive voice, bearing little resemblance to those of earlier composers, and yet communicate with power and immediacy to a modern audience. MacMillan, a conductor and composer, created a rich fabric of orchestral sonority, which the Spokane Symphony sounded out gloriously, especially in the brass and lower strings. Conductor Eckart Preu rearranged the seating of the orchestra to emphasize the impact of these elements to thrilling effect, especially for the trombones and horns.
Sibelius’ First Symphony – which draws on medieval myth for inspiration, like MacMillan’s opera – also exploits the lower, darker resources of the orchestra. Many conductors stress the glacial, granitic elements of Sibelius’ work, but not Preu. The energy and impulse that enlivened the Ravel was no less in evidence in the Sibelius, which pulsed with the passion of youthful love and patriotic fervor, rather than evoking, as it can in other hands, the timelessness of the frozen North.