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Terez Mertes

The Substitute

October 11, 2007 at 4:50 PM

Jeremy Denk, substitute in question for an ailing Itzhak Perlman (details and author’s ensuing reaction to the news can be found here), strode onto the stage at San Francisco’s Davies Hall on Sunday afternoon and gave a rollicking, passionate performance of Beethoven’s Concerto no. 1 in C major. Goodbye misgivings over whether he could put on a good show, hello constricted chest, flushed cheeks and breathless anticipation over the next note and the next.

One of my favorite things about watching soloists is observing the way the music flows through them. You can see it clearly—an unconscious bob of the head, an angling of the chin, the way the shoulders move as they ride the swell of a musical wave. From the moment the orchestral tutti commenced, you could see the music course through Denk. He was one big Beethoven conduit, more so as he began to play. His passion and attention to interpretive detail came through particularly well in the first movement’s cadenza. It gripped me, literally. My quads began to ache. It gripped the entire audience; you could feel it—the absolute stillness of an enthralled crowd. He’d draw out the final lingering pianissimo notes of a phrase and there we were, three thousand units of baited breath, clenched muscles.

When he ended the long, emotive cadenza, after stretching out the last few notes, there was a palpable sense of release—Beethoven releasing Denk, he, in turn, releasing us. You could hear the audience rustling about, taking care of the business of breathing once again, nudging their bums back from the seat’s edge where they’d been perched. It was a reaction like something out of a movie—the soloist finishing with a flourish, the audience flung back into their seats, drained by the experience, the intensity of it all, like after great—am I allowed to use the word here?—sex. Honest, that’s what it felt like. It’s been twenty years since I touched a cigarette, but right then, boy, I’ll tell you what.

While I’ve enjoyed all the soloists whose performances I’ve caught at Davies Hall, not since Gil Shaham’s performance a year and a half ago have I felt such palpable energy and enthusiasm emanating from a soloist. It was an experience all the more enjoyable because the artist, it seemed, derived equal pleasure and energy from the music itself, from the orchestra’s contribution in its creation.

A humorous aside, if I might. Having penned my effusive praise, I paused to surf the Net in order to find commentaries that might echo my sentiments on his passion, his concentration, particularly during the opening orchestral tutti. What I found was a blog by Denk himself, commenting on that auspicious moment. Only, as it turns out, it wasn’t as auspicious as I’d thought. Following is an excerpt of his entertaining, irreverent blog entry, presented quiz-style, about his week in San Francisco.

Question Five

The opening tutti of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto is rather long. (This pianist takes revenge for this during the cadenza heh heh.) You stride out there, all blustery and full of confidence, and then the orchestra just keeps on going, doing Beethoven’s C-major-ish version of the Energizer Bunny. What do you do to pass the time?

a) Breathe deeply and imagine the forces of harmony moving in great tectonic plates; b) Glance meaningfully at orchestra members, which may irritate them; c) Fantasize about gnocchi from Union Square Cafe (don’t forget to come in!); d) Wonder what the piano will sound like, since you haven’t been able to try it out for hours; e)Reminisce over [French bulldog] Noe’s redolent saliva.

The whole post is quite entertaining; must have been that Left Coast air and attitude permeating his aura. To read the whole October 9th blog post (well worth your time, and thanks to Emily Liz for mentioning the blog in the original discussion thread), go here. And then go listen to him perform and tell me whether you needed a cigarette afterwards.

© 2007 Terez Rose

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 4:56 PM
Where's Jim? I hear he's a good editor. Jim? Comments, suggestions?
From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 5:04 PM
..."nausea at the ennui of hipster life"...

Heh Heh. Being uncool is a fortunate thing!!! It also saves a lot of rubles.

Glad you enjoyed the concert. I have been lucky enough to hear live, or back up, many incredible pianists, and yes, the music just oozes through them. I haven't heard Denk live, and now I wish that I could!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 5:11 PM
He's a good writer, eh? ((Said in a grudging tone laced with equal parts envy and admiration.))
From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 5:30 PM
OK, fine.

"Terez, your fabulous blog entry just sizzles off the page! Two thumbs up! It made me wish I were there!"

Actually, your blogs are good, and the interaction is priceless. Well done. By the way, how are Jake's feet? I have been terribly worried about him...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 5:41 PM
>"Terez, your fabulous blog entry just sizzles off the page! Two thumbs up! It made me wish I were there!"

Oh, stop, you! Honest, I wasn't fishing for compliments. But hey, I'm shameless, so I'll take it. : )

On Jake's feet: one paw has still got this blasted fungus, I think. But it's not getting any worse, so this is when I repeat to myself that he is a turtle. Just a turtle. And I can't babysit him forever. This, however, does not preclude me from taking him out to the front yard for our "scales time" every day for 20 minutes. I don't know what we'll do when the extended cold weather comes. Oh, heck, this is California. Extended cold weather still means sunshine every third day, afternoon temps in the 60's and not the 80's. He'll just want to hibernate. A fine idea, I have to say.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 6:49 PM
He is really funny. Professional pianists writing about the Energizer Bunny? And "don't forget to come in"? Priceless. Thanks for sharing that with us. And your own writing too! It is so lively and fun.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 6:52 PM
Glad you liked Denk. A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to interact with him a bit at the Hampden-Sydney Music Festival in Virginia where he was the pianist in residence and see him play some chamber music. Nice man and excellent musician. He did a good job of coaching some of the less experienced chamber musicians.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 11, 2007 at 7:35 PM
Good to hear that Jake is OK.

Next blog opener: "It was a dark and stormy night..."

(Insert smiley face here).

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 12, 2007 at 3:23 AM
Shouldn`t it be `a dark and stormy knight...?`
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 12, 2007 at 5:30 AM
I'm glad you weren't disappointed by the substitute for Perlman. Judging from your description, Denk must be fabulous. I've often had, and sometimes tried to describe in my blog, the emotional and bodily reaction of the listeners to the performer, and you described it beautifully. Something like the energy goes from the composer to the performer, out through the auditorium, and then into and through us. It is quite magic, isn't it?

IMHO, you write better than Denk.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 12, 2007 at 1:33 PM
Buri, you are thinking of Clive Owen. (That's not a bad idea, actually).

How 'bout this:

"In human affairs cause and effect often behave not like the inseparable twins science says they are but like two harebrains never even acquainted." -Chaper One, Page One, "Rumbin Galleries" by Booth Tarkington, 1936.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 12, 2007 at 4:02 PM
Aw, Pauline, thanks for the nice comments. (And remember, I got fueled to write my comments by reading your own Beethoven concert musings.)

And I love what you wrote here:
>... the energy goes from the composer to the performer, out through the auditorium, and then into and through us. It is quite magic, isn't it?

Magic, indeed. How lucky we all are to have the ability to access it.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 12, 2007 at 4:05 PM
>Shouldn`t it be `a dark and stormy knight...?

Okay, Buri, I'll make it one better: "He was a dark and stormy knight."

Anne - Clive Owen, bingo. Oh my, yes.

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