Denk delves deeply into the heart of Mozart

Jeremy Denk
Twin Cities Pioneer Press

Ever since the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra launched its "artistic partners" system of sharing leadership among various conductors and soloists 14 years ago, there's usually been a pianist among the group, be it Stephen Prutsman, Pierre-Laurent Aimard or Christian Zacharias. But, since climbing aboard the SPCO ship in 2014, Jeremy Denk has taken the role of pianist-in-residence and put his own stamp on it.

Denk comes off as a musician on a mission to build a bridge between you and the composer whose work he's exploring that evening. He customarily takes the stage alone and offers a colorfully descriptive mini-lecture on the pieces being performed and how he views their emotional arc. Then he's joined by the orchestra for an invariably enlightening performance. It's a template that's clearly grown on SPCO audiences, as evidenced by the scarcity of tickets available for this weekend's concerts, at which Wolfgang Mozart gets the Denk treatment.

The pianist's path to the heart of Mozart on this program is a pair of piano concertos, but Friday night's audience at St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall received more than the program said it would. Denk opened the concert with an exquisitely yearning A-minor Rondo from late in the composer's life and threw on a slow movement from a late Mozart sonata as an encore in response to an extended standing ovation. And, judging from the length of the line in the lobby waiting to have CDs signed by Denk, it's clear that his method of concertizing is a hit.

Being a lover of Mozart piano concertos, I came into the evening most avidly anticipating what he'd do with the 20th concerto, a beautiful blend of sweetness and melancholy. But Denk altered my plans immediately with that A-minor Rondo, a work that reminded me of what a revolutionary Mozart was becoming late in his brief life. Rather than 1787, it sounded like something from considerably later, perhaps from Beethoven's experimental twilight or the early romantic yearnings of Frederic Chopin or Robert Schumann. And Denk made it feel as if the composer was trying to escape the shadow of sadness with limited success. 

Read the rest of the review here