A HIP performance, impressions of Jeremy Denk and other musings

I had great intentions to go to many more holiday concerts this month before I was laid flat by the Virus that hit Cincinnati. So, here are a few impressions from December:

Pianist Jeremy Denk visited Chamber Music Cincinnati early in the month for a full recital. An overflow crowd crammed into Werner Recital Hall — it’s too bad it wasn’t in the much larger Corbett Auditorium.

Jeremy Denk enthralled a capacity crowd at Chamber Music Cincinnati this month.
Jeremy Denk enthralled a capacity crowd at Chamber Music Cincinnati this month.

Denk recently won the MacArthur Genius fellowship, and small wonder. To give an example of his genius, his performance came fresh off of a Carnegie Hall performance of Steven Stucky’s comic opera, “The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts),” for which Denk wrote the libretto. He is Musical America’s 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year. You can read more of why he’s a Renaissance man here.

His Cincinnati program was both genius and a bit curious.

The Genius: His playing of Haydn’s Sonata in C Major was electrifying. Its hallmarks were clarity, humor and color. The slow movement was deeply intense, and took us to another world.

The Curious: Denk merged Janacek’s music from “On an Overgrown Path” with various lândler, galopps and Moments Musicaux by Schubert, so that movements alternated to create one lengthy suite. Although I understood what he was trying to accomplish — finding similarities of mood between the composers, etc., — it was just too cerebral for me. I would have preferred hearing them individually. I loved the Janacek, in particular. This is wonderful music that no one ever hears — it was evocative, emotional and deeply felt.

I was perhaps less enamored with Mozart’s Sonata in F Major K. 533 and the Rondo K. 494 because this was a small hall, and Denk is not a subtle player. He communicated as if playing to a big hall — but it was all fleet and crystal clear. He’s a physical player, who moves with each phrase, kicks up his left foot, leans back and gazes at the ceiling.

Genius returns: That was in Beethoven’s E Minor Sonata, Op. 109. Denk plunged into its opening bars without pause, and you had to revel in this revolutionary music that Beethoven wrote in the first measures. The pianist summoned heaven and earth. You could feel Beethoven’s tortured genius, thundering, then pulling back into the most beautiful sonorities imaginable.

For an encore, Denk played the slow movement of Ives’ Concord Sonata — in honor of Beethoven, whose motto from his Fifth Symphony appears amidst fragments of Americana.

I wish there had been time for something French. His album with his longtime friend Joshua Bell, ‘French Impressions,” is one of my favorites.

Rising star James Bagwell led a semi-HIP performance of Messiah
Rising star James Bagwell led a semi-HIP performance of Messiah

Handel’s Messiah

I thoroughly enjoyed the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s version of “Messiah” with a reduced May Festival Chorus under James Bagwell. I’ve come to enjoy what is known as HIP — historically informed performance practice. Of course, there are many variations on HIP today, from musicians playing on modern instruments and strings while using “HIP” performance techniques, to ensembles of authentic early instruments using gut strings, quicker tempos, short bows, etc. The CSO, which was reduced to under 30 players, fell more in the first category. Or as oboist Dwight Parry said later, “sort of HIP.”

It was a fine performance, although not as electrifying as when Jane Glover led the orchestra two years ago. There was something about her direction that was exciting and spontaneous, with galvanizing tempos. It is still fresh in my ear.

Amahl and the Night Visitors: What fun it was to revisit this “new” Cincinnati tradition, courtesy of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and Madcap Puppets, performed at Xavier University.

And yet, I feel robbed by what I missed this year due to bronchitis (no one wants someone hacking away in the third row… )

I’ll be at the Pops on New Year’s Eve to hear what kind of music Storm Large is planning with her band, Le Bonheur.

What was your favorite holiday concert or performance this year?

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