Friday, November 08, 2013

Jeremy Denk Plays Mozart at the SF Symphony

Since I am a bit critical (cue for laughter), I try to make a point of avoiding concerts and cultural events that don't sound like my cup of tea, particularly if writing about them later. For instance, this week's program at the San Francisco Symphony was definitely on the cusp. While not a fan of music director Michael Tilson Thomas' way with Beethoven and Mozart, there were also two modernist pieces on the program at which MTT and the orchestra tend to be great. The tipping point this evening was the prospect of listening to Jeremy Denk playing a Mozart piano concerto, because the last time that happened six years ago at a Summer in the City pops concert, I unexpectedly burst into tears (click here).

The concert started with Beethoven's Leonore Overture #3 where Tilson Thomas overemphasized the contrasts in the music at the expense of its essential fabric, one of his signature faults conducting early 19th century music.

This was followed by a huge concerto for orchestra called Eating Greens by Steve Mackey. The composer sounds like he was the Mason Bates of 1994 when the piece was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing as it does with recorded sound, samples, and a precisely nebulous program with a driving beat. Tilson Thomas recorded it with The New World Symphony, and is obviously a fan, but his introduction to the piece was reductive and gave away the ending. This was too bad because the music has aged well, and the large orchestra sounded great in it, particularly the new timpani player who was dancing about. This was the first piece I've heard by Mackey and made me want to hear more of his music over the last couple of decades. He even has a blog.

Speaking of blogs, the pianist Jeremy Denk started one about the same time Civic Center began, except he graduated to writing for The New Yorker and recently received a MacArthur "genius grant" Fellowship. (I cannot be the only person in the world who reads the annual list and thinks, "Screw these people! Why aren't they giving me one?") Over the years at the SF Symphony, I've heard Denk play Mozart's 23rd with the great young Mozartian James Gaffigan conducting, Cowell's Piano Concerto at the American Mavericks festival where he seemed to be out of his musical element, and Liszt's showy First where he was unexpectedly poetic.

I love Mozart's piano concertos beyond reason, but the final one (#25) has always struck me as a bit overscored and uninteresting compared to the others. Not after this performance. Denk made sure you heard the birth of Romanticism in this music, and by the end the concerto sounded brand new, which is the ultimate compliment. There was another piece on the program, Copland's 1920s stab at modernism called the Symphonic Ode, but we left, wanting to keep the glow of Mozart in our brains. There are two more performances on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. According to the Symphony's hotline, $20 rush tickets are available to anyone at the box office starting at noon tomorrow for Saturday evening. Highly recommended if you are in the mood.


Hattie said...

You don't know how much I appreciate this review. So now I'm saying it!

Civic Center said...

Dear Hattie: Thanks. I had a good time writing it immediately after the concert when the music was still jangling in my ears.