November 6, 2016

Jeremy Denk, piano

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We are always happy to welcome Jeremy Denk back to our piano series. The New York Times hails him as someone ‘you want to hear no matter what he performs’. Winner of a 2013 MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, the 2014 Avery Fisher Prize and Musical America’s 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year award, he has recently appeared as soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and the symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and London. 


Artist Website:

Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310                                                          MOZART 
      Allegro maestoso                                                                        (1756-1791) 
      Andante cantabile con expressione

Phrygian Gates                                                                              JOHN ADAMS
                                                                                                                   (1947- )


Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”                      BEETHOVEN
      Largo: Allegro                                                                               (1770-1827)

Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (Wanderer)                                             SCHUBERT

Program subject to change.


Program Notes

Michael Lebovitch

MOZART                                                         Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310

The A minor sonata was written in Paris in the summer of 1778, just a few months after Mozart had made a delightful discovery of the latest pianos, an instrument of greater dynamic range, musical expressiveness, and technical capabilities.  He specifically took advantages of it in emphasizing the left hand to which, in key moments, he occasionally assigned the carrying of the melody to an impressive effect.  It is possible that having access to these new pianos that gave him confidence to mark the central Andante movement to be played espressione, with great feeling.

In the First movement, Mozart combines the colorful harmonic palette and tautness of rhythm, with many distinctive touches, such as a dissonance at the second bar, or the running semiquavers.   Lyricism is very evident in the Second movement, Andante contabile – a full, luxuriously decorated sonata-form movement of extraordinary beauty.  Those expecting the Finale movement to be exuberant or more relaxed will be wrong:  the mood overall is tense, the insistent rhythm of the main theme of the rondo keep a tight control of the movement.  The only relaxation comes in second section of the movement with a more warming sound.   The A minor sonata reflects his deep grief over the loss of his mother while in Paris.


JOHN ADAMS                                                               Phrygian Gates

The 1970s was a time of enormous ideological conflict in new music when the assumptions of post-Schoenbergian aesthetics finally began to be challenged by composers who saw little future in the principles of serialism.  Musicologists felt that Minimalism in art music was a reaction to the rational methods of composition and the lack of emotion in serial music and other modern forms. Often minimalist composers strive to create a simple melodic line and harmonic progression; they stress repetition, often with minute variations, and rhythmic patterns. Minimalists often add electronic instruments and accentuate their works with musical ideas from Asia and Africa.  

Minimalist music is then a reductive style or school of modern music, utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, with, often, a pulsing, hypnotic effect.  Among prominent minimalist composers are Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and John Adams.

The Phrygian Gates composition dates from 1977-78.  He considered it, along with China Gates of the same period, as his “opus one”.  Although John Adams is best known for his orchestral and operatic works, his first two piano works had a profound effect on the composer’s stylistic development, the first coherent statement of a new musical language.  The title word “Gates” is a metaphor for moments of an abrupt change used in electronic music, a term for rapidly shifting modes. 

Adams wanted to write something grand, with subtle technique, and for powerful hands.  The result is a broad scheme of textural variety, pitch cell development, and dynamic contrast.  Adams considered this work to be most strictly structured and ordered.  The composition is set in the Phrygian mode (a musical scale dating to ancient Greeks), and cycles through half the keys throughout its roughly 20-minute duration.  Repetitive segments grow in dynamics or retreat to quieter moments, eliciting a mesmerizing effect on a listener.


BEETHOVEN                                   Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”

The three piano sonatas the comprise Op. 31 were written during 1801-02 in the composer’s 31st year.  This is about the time when Beethoven declared dissatisfaction with his prior works and set out to what he called “the new path”.   Unquestionably, sonata Op. 31, No. 2, his 17th piano sonata, is a product of the new direction:  it is a tense, extremely dramatic work that stands in great contrast to prior sonatas.  This work is traditionally known as the “Tempest” sonata due to Beethoven’s reported answer to a question about the meaning of “Sturm und Drang” to read Shakespeare’s Tempest.

The intensely theatrical First movement opens with contrasts of a slow Largo and a brisk Allegro.  Much of the movement features a rising bass under passages of sequences.  The Second movement recalls the sonata’s opening, the tranquilly songful slow Adagio.  The Finale movement is often referred to as “haunted”: it’s a minor-mood sonata form with an extensive development section.  An oddly restive, lengthy code brings the sonata to a quiet end.


SCHUBERT                                                      Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (Wanderer)

Schubert, unlike his contemporaries Beethoven and Weber, was not known to be a piano virtuoso, nor did he believe in writing music to show off technical brilliance.  The challenges in performing his music are the expressiveness of musical lines and extraordinarily complex, large musical structures of his compositions.  The Wanderer Fantasy stands out as a particularly technically difficult work:  when Schubert attempted to play this piece to his friends, midway through the finale, he broke down, exclaiming that “the Devil should play this piece”.

The Fantasy, composed in 1822, anticipates the most dazzling pianistic achievements of Liszt.  It was a truly pioneering work:  never before had a composer taken the elements of symphonic structure and worked them into linked movements of a single expressive idea.  The theme takes its name from a motif from Schubert’s song “Der Wanderer” where it is associated with a traveler pacing alone through a cold and empty world.  From this motif, Schubert develops the first section with a skill that rivals Beethoven’s.  The Adagio middle section is somber that dissolves in a cascade of notes, again reminiscent of Beethoven.  In the final section, Schubert builds a massive fugue, with powerful octaves starting in the bass line, which brings the work to a powerful conclusion.


About the Artist

Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists – an artist The New York Times hails as someone "you want to hear no matter what he performs." Winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, Denk was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016. Denk returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and has appeared at the BBC Proms with Michael Tilson Thomas. In the US, he has recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as on tour with Academy St. Martin in the Fields.

In 16-17, Denk embarks on a recital tour of the UK, including a return to Wigmore Hall, and he will make his debut at the Philharmonie in Cologne. He appears on tour in recital throughout the US, including Chicago Symphony Hall and at Lincoln Center's White Light Festival in a special program that includes a journey through seven centuries of Western music. He also tours with The St. Paul Orchestra to New York, and returns to the National Symphony and St. Louis Symphony. He will release a solo recording, The Classical Style, of music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and joins his long-time musical partners, Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis in a recording of Brahms' Trio in B-major. Future projects include a US tour of the Ives Violin Sonatas with Stefan Jackiw, and a new Piano Concerto commissioned by The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Following the release of his disc of the Goldberg Variations, which reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Chart, Denk performed the piece throughout Europe, including at Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Denk’s 2015-16 engagements included a fourteen-city recital tour of the US, including Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco and culminated in his return to Carnegie Hall; while in the UK, he appeared in solo recital and on tour with the Britten Sinfonia. He also returned to the San Diego and Detroit Symphonies with Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, and continued as Artistic Partner of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with multiple performances throughout the season. In the summer, he returned to the Tanglewood and Aspen Festivals.

In 2014 Denk served as Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, for which, besides performing and curating, he wrote the libretto for a comic opera. The opera was later presented by Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Festival. Denk is known for his original and insightful writing on music, which Alex Ross praises for its “arresting sensitivity and wit.” The pianist’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, The Guardian, and on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. One of his New Yorker contributions, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” forms the basis of a memoir for future publication by Random House in the US, and Macmillan in the UK. Recounting his experiences of touring, performing, and practicing, his blog, Think Denk, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives.

In 2012, Denk made his Nonesuch debut with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111, and Ligeti’s Études. The album was named one of the best of 2012 by the New Yorker, NPR, and the Washington Post, and Denk’s account of the Beethoven sonata was selected by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best available version recorded on modern piano. Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas featured in many “best of the year” lists. In March 2012, the pianist was invited by Michael Tilson Thomas to appear as soloist in the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks festival, and he recorded Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto with the orchestra. Having cultivated relationships with many living composers, he currently has several commissioning projects in progress.

Denk has toured frequently with violinist Joshua Bell, and their recently released Sony Classical album, French Impressions, won the 2012 Echo Klassik award. He also collaborates regularly with cellist Steven Isserlis, and has appeared at numerous festivals, including the Italian and American Spoleto Festivals, and the Verbier, Ravinia, Tanglewood, Aspen Music, and Mostly Mozart Festivals.

Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin College, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School. He lives in New York City, and his web site and blog are at