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The Wanderer Program

Pianist Jeremy Denk
Pianist Jeremy Denk’s last-minute program change, trading Book One of Ligeti’s Etudes for American composer Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 1, radically altered the expectations for his Saturday afternoon recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. Denk first gave a nuanced interpretation of Bach’s inventive Toccata in D major, BWV 912, achieving a masterful level of expressiveness through a light touch, individual voicing, and exacting dynamic control, without egregious affectations of tempo often heard from non-specialists on the piano. With the audience in the palm of his hand following the Bach, Denk reinforced his detailed program notes on the Ives with verbal remarks and the playing of first-movement themes: the tune Where Is My Wandering Boy and the hymn Lebanon (the text begins “I was a wandering sheep, I did not love the fold…”).

Written between 1909 and 1916, Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 1 comprises five movements based upon the story of a late 19th-century Connecticut farming family, whose son has gone off to “sow his wild oats.” The second and fourth movements are raucous scherzos depicting the boy discovering life off the farm, while the other movements encapsulate his anxious, prayerful parents back home. An utterly American work, the scherzos include manic ragtime material along with a less than innocent version of Bringing in the Sheaves (the first lines are “Sowing in the morning…Sowing in the noontime…”). The final movement becomes a virtuosic jumble of everything left in unresolved wonderment.

In proper hands, Ives’s sonata should not be a difficult sell for an audience, given its thrilling level of pianism: before his lucrative career as an insurance executive, Ives studied composition formally with Horatio Parker, a student of Rheinberger. Fortunately, every note Denk touches on the piano is beautiful, and thus the wandering, turn-on-a-dime mood swings from dreamy descending motifs to chaotic splashes were executed by Denk with complete analytical, technical, and emotional authority. Passion and enthusiasm can be contagious: by going the extra mile to personally share his love of this work beyond just playing the piano, Denk elicited the audience's trust in his unexpected programming change, for which most later thanked him.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Jeremy Denk at the Terrace Theater (Washington Post, January 25)
The second half of the program was weakened by Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold,” from Symphonie fantastique and Meyerbeer’s Réminiscences de "Robert le Diable", both in arrangements by Liszt, which came across as a heroic, yet tiring encore following the Ives. (The Ivesian added non-chord tone added in the final chord of the Meyerbeer might have been an admission by Denk that he too was a bit bored by the selections.) Schuman’s collection of eighteen small pieces known as the Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6 showed off Denk’s skill at evoking shifting characters. The encore, presented almost like Denk’s own mischievous, attention-deficit-disorder improvisation à la Ives, was actually the “Alcotts” movement from Ives’s Concord Sonata, which hammers themes from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Here Comes the Bride, and Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu among others.

The next piano recital presented by Washington Performing Arts Society will feature Radu Lupu, this Wednesday (January 27, 8 pm) in the Music Center at Strathmore.

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