Wednesday , June 12 2024
Jeremy Denk, Orchestra of St. Luke's, Bach Keyboard Concertos
Photo credit: Chris Lee Photography

Concert Review: Jeremy Denk, Orchestra of St. Luke’s Open OSL Bach Festival with Bach Keyboard Concertos

Pianist Jeremy Denk has always conveyed a “regular guy” persona on stage. This down-to-earth quality also comes through in a big way in his recent autobiography, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which depicts his struggles as he evolved into the justly celebrated musician he is today. Seeing him in concert for the first time since reading the book, I appreciated all the more how he captures an audience not through flamboyance but through his simple – if highly refined – and very visible love for the music, in this case six keyboard concertos by J.S. Bach, performed with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) on June 6 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

J.S. Bach – a Master of Transformation

I was familiar with the first two concertos on the program, BWV 1054 and 1058, in their original violin concerto form. Hearing the violin part transformed for keyboard, I felt a renewed appreciation for Bach’s ability to rework music brilliantly for very different contexts. Beyond that, the concert as a whole refreshed my belief in Bach as an unfathomable genius whose very existence seems beyond understanding. For this is wonderful music from every angle, from sublime beauty to intellectual rigor.

So as to lead the Orchestra of St. Luke’s musicians from the keyboard (there was no separate conductor), Denk faced them rather than the audience. The “rear view” didn’t detract from the experience. The clarity, color, and kinetics of his playing meshed with the orchestra’s exploratory warmth to produce an excited energy that buzzed through the hall.

Keyboard and strings flowed together – and in good balance, which surprised me a little, since the piano lid was closed. The opening movement of the Concerto in A Major felt like a big smile. In the “Adagio e piano sempre,” with its haunting “ground bass” motives in the cellos and basses, the orchestra rode right along with Denk’s rubato liberties. And it was during the virtuoso sound clouds from the keyboard in the final movement that it first really hit me how well this music translates to the piano from the violin.

Jeremy Denk, Orchestra of St. Luke's, Bach Keyboard Concertos
Jeremy Denk leads Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Bach Festival at Zankel Hall, 6/6/2023. Photo by Chris Lee

The concert continued in this fashion. The Allegro of the Concerto in G minor was somehow festive, majestic, and lyrical at the same time. The Andante was so sublime it floated past before I could even think to take any notes.

The fiery piano passages, such as the exposed ones in the opening Allegro of the E Major concerto, emerged decisively and finely articulated. That same movement contained a divine, breath-taking moment as it transitioned back to the A section. The Siciliano that followed was transporting, with beautifully expressive pianism.

Pianist and Orchestra as Unit

Melancholy and childlike simplicity characterized the slow movement of the Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056. The closing movement that followed was a glowing thrill ride. And Denk’s dexterity seemed to know no bounds in the Allegro of the A Major BWV 1055 concerto. The beautiful exposed piano melodies in that concerto’s Larghetto movement made a good case for the suggestion that this music was derived from a lost work for oboe d’amore. The last movement bore an especial display of the complex interplay between piano and orchestra that Denk and the OSL had mastered so well for this concert.

Perpetual-motion keyboard work ran through the near-madness of the opening Allegro of the Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, the evening’s final selection, bringing the music to a pitch of excitement. In the Adagio, Denk’s deeply expressive playing reminded me a bit of Simone Dinnerstein’s elastic/romantic approach to Bach.

The musicians’ seemingly endless energy continued through the climactic final Allegro. But when Denk returned for a solo encore, it was a sweetly expressive piano rag, a parting gift to an enormously appreciative audience that seemed to value the pianist’s honest and humble bearing as much as his stellar skills.

The OSL’s 2023 Bach Festival continues June 13 and 20 with violinist Gil Shaham and countertenor Hugh Cutting. Visit the Carnegie Hall website for information and tickets.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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