There are musicians who are worth driving through gale force winds and sub-zero temperatures to hear. Jeremy Denk’s performance of Bartók’s third piano concerto, a work dubbed the “Asheville Concerto,” with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra was one such event. Under the direction of Daniel Meyer in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the orchestra also performed, as part of this fifth masterworks program, Zhou Tian’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and closed with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. The programmatic threads of nationalistically-inspired musical styles and the inclusion of nature elements were heard throughout the evening.
To hear Denk play and to read the accounts of his active performance schedule are to understand why he’s so extraordinary. He performs with orchestras, at festivals, and in chamber ensembles all over the world. Furthermore, he regularly communicates his impressions and feelings about his potentially neurosis-inducing lifestyle on his blog “think denk." It is rare that an artist of his caliber would care (or dare) to share his inner thoughts so candidly, and with such a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor.
The program opened with “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” (2009), a piece inspired by the ancient Chinese proverb which says that “a good relationship between two people would take a thousand years of good prayers to bring about.” Sounding frequently like music for film, it blends seamlessly Asiatic elements with western modes in a wash of orchestral timbres. It is dedicated to the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Bridget-Michaele Reischl. The opening, a series of atonal horn calls, led to entrances of timpani and brass before the music settled in the strings. Their repeated pulsing figures formed the background for fine solos from the winds, the whole becoming more and more lyrical as the piece progressed in great swells and ebbs of sound.
Just before intermission came the Bartók concerto. This piece bears a real connection to Asheville, as this was where the composer came in the summer of 1945 to compose while his leukemia was in remission. He stayed at the Albemarle Inn and was able to complete all but the last 17 measures of the work before his health declined, leading to his death on September 26. Denk spoke at length about the richness of the many references in the second movement alone: to Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” from his late string quartet Op. 132, a hymn of thanksgiving; the famous bird calls inspired by the birds he heard while in North Carolina; the modal style of the Renaissance, and the chorale style of Bach. In general, the concerto is more tonal and less dissonant than his previous two, perhaps because the composer wished to leave his wife, Ditta (also a concert pianist) a work that would be readily welcomed into the concert repertoire.
Denk’s opening solo, a melody doubled at a two octave interval, sounded like actual speech, as he rhetorically shaped its phrases. He is an engaging performer who frequently looks right at the audience as if his musical exchanges are as much with them as with the orchestra. Being brought into the “conversation” in this way, one can hardly not listen to what he’s doing. The movement is comparatively transparent, with repeated exchanges of melodic and rhythmic ideas, but not without considerable technical demands which Denk executed effortlessly. The second movement was one of the evening’s highlights opening with a gorgeous rendering of a simple chorale. Denk’s elasticity with tempo was well marked by the orchestra which stayed with him consistently. The scherzo-like middle section brought several “bird chirps” from the winds which were humorously echoed in the piano. The third movement, allegro vivace was marked by rhythmic insistency and a fugue which was clearly articulated despite its blistering tempo. The closing measures of this music built to a rhythmic frenzy and were some of the most exciting moments one could hope to hear. This brought the audience to its feet in a rousing ovation.
The Dvořák Symphony No. 8, Op. 88 (1889), is one of my favorite works and clearly one of Meyer’s, who spoke of its engaging ethnic and tuneful elements. Unfortunately, where one sits in this auditorium matters; as I was seated on the right side, I heard too many trumpet off-beats and lower brass. That said, the opening movement with its string of lyrical melodies was beautifully and tenderly performed. Meyer is wonderfully adept at establishing characterizations within the music. By freezing the orchestra in place at each movement’s end, he allows impressions to linger in the room once the music stops. The second movement, one of many moods, was my favorite as it highlighted the many fine solo players throughout the orchestra. The third movement was a waltz of sweeping phrases and a poignant sort of grandiosity which transcended its dance type. The fourth movement’s ebullient character was not lost on the youngster in front of me, who was literally bouncing up and down in his seat. People all around me were smiling and responding to the music with movements of their own, a tribute to this fine orchestra and conductor. Bravo tutti!