Bringing the concert hall to you

Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents Jeremy Denk

4 minute read
Jeremy Denk loves the piano, but it’s not the same without an audience. (Photo by Shervin Lainez.)
Jeremy Denk loves the piano, but it’s not the same without an audience. (Photo by Shervin Lainez.)

Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) has always punched above its weight, bringing a wide array of classical artists to the city at modest prices. It comes as no surprise to see them navigating the new digital landscape with ingenuity and ease. Throughout the fall, the outfit has offered recitals streamed live from Benjamin Franklin Hall in Old City—like the one featuring acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk on November 12—while also welcoming a small number of in-person attendees.

Time for access

The city allowed audiences to return to theaters and auditoriums beginning in September, provided that capacity did not exceed 25 people and proper social distancing was respected. Few venues have reopened, understandably, due to ongoing coronavirus concerns and financial prudency. PCMS bucked the trend, while also acknowledging that some people—like this writer—are not ready to return to the concert hall. Streams are offered free, with donations accepted; Miles Cohen, the company’s artistic director, recommends $25, the cost of a single ticket to a regular concert there.

This strategy is commendable for several reasons. Under normal circumstances, PCMS recitals often sell out well before tickets are put on general sale, as there are few places in the country where performers like Mitsuko Uchida or Barbara Hannigan can be seen for so little money. Streaming these concerts widens the company’s audience base, and it further removes financial barriers for those who might find even $25 too dear. At a time when classical music must consider how to build a younger, more diverse audience, this kind of democratization cannot come a moment too soon.

Always exhilarating

There is also something thrilling about a live performance, even seen through a computer screen, that cannot be replicated. I’ve sampled several PCMS offerings over the past few weeks, and while the individual quality of each recital has been somewhat variable, the experience is always exhilarating. To me, it easily bests the polished, pre-recorded concerts coming from the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way. Before taking the piano, Denk, visibly choked up, mentioned that he had not performed before spectators since March. The sense of feeding off an audience changes the dynamics of even the most familiar composition, and throughout the hour-long program, Denk seemed physically, spiritually, and musically invested. Tight close-ups showed him almost literally in conversation with each piece, as if he were channeling Glenn Gould.

Brahms and the Schumanns

Thematically, the program revolved around the love triangle of Robert Schumann; his wife, Clara Wieck Schumann; and their great friend, Johannes Brahms. There is little to no evidence that actually suggests Clara and Brahms had a romantic relationship, but he remained a constant companion during Robert’s struggles with mental illness, leading to his early death. The trio undoubtedly influenced each other professionally, a fact Denk drew out as he progressed from Robert Schumann’s youthfully exuberant Papillons to Brahms’ mature, moving Four Piano Pieces.

In Papillons, Denk highlighted the Schubertian influence with richly rounded polonaises, also underlining Robert Schumann’s fascination with folk music. He contrasted the tight harmonies in the Andante of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances with a freer, more spontaneous performance of the Allegretto, where her husband’s influence can be heard. His performance of the Intermezzo in B Minor underscored the forward thinking that characterized Brahms throughout his career; you could draw a direct line to Schoenberg and his theories of twelve-tone composition.

Free but happy?

If the evening had an outlier, it was Missy Mazzoli’s Bolts of Loving Thunder—although the contemporary composer drew on Brahms’s fondness for hand-crossing in the short piece, which she wrote in 2013 for Emanuel Ax. Mazzoli’s style is recognizably harmonic and approachable, although this particular bagatelle ends somewhat abruptly without resolution. (Performing without a pause, I was surprised when Denk segued into the first notes of Brahms.) I’m not sure the work fully lives up to the Brahmsian motto of frei abor froh (“free but happy”) referenced in the program notes, but Denk’s interpretation was equally thoughtful and exuberant.

Image description: A photo of pianist Jeremy Denk. He is a 50-year-old white man wearing a simple black suit with a light-colored shirt and no tie. He’s sitting at a grand piano, resting one hand on it and looking at the keys.

What, When, Where

Jeremy Denk, piano. R. Schumann, Papillons, Op. 2; C. Schumann, Three Romances; Mazzoli, Bolts of Loving Thunder; Brahms, Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. November 12, 2020, at the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. A livestream of the event is available on YouTube through Sunday, November 15, 2020.

The American Philosophical Society is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For questions about accessibility of PCMS livestreams, please contact [email protected].

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