Jeremy Denk plays Ligeti, Liszt, and Bach

This past Sunday was a dreary, wet day- perfect for spending the afternoon indoors listening to some music, so the Femme Fatale and I drove over to Berkeley to hear Jeremy Denk play the piano. The last time I saw I Denk I wasn't impressed. In fact, it resulted in one the snarkier posts I've ever written which then resulted in an interesting email exchange between us. Having missed him the last time he came through the area I was looking forward to another opportunity to hear him and the scheduled program was promising.

Things got off to a rocky start before Denk even came onstage, with the announcement of a change to the program. Instead of Books 1 and 2 of the Ligeti Etudes, we were now only going to hear most of Book 1 and get Liszt's Dante Sonata in place of the 2nd. A man seated in the row in front of us let out an exasperated expletive at this announcement and I too, thought something similar. There was also an apology about the performance starting late, which was described as being "due to the weather."

I wondered what exactly that meant. At about 3:20 I noticed John Adams enter the hall and take a seat. 30 seconds later Denk appeared on stage. So "due to the weather" actually means "we're making you wait until John Adams arrives, because obviously it's more important he not miss a thing than it is to start the performance on time." Or perhaps Denk and Adams were hanging out together and both of them were late? Unlikely, but possible I suppose.

Once onstage, Denk had to ask for a rack to be put on the piano to hold the sheet music for the Ligeti.

Finally, we had some music. Denk tore into the first of Ligeti's etudes with abandon. It certainly looked difficult to play and watching Denk's fingers fly across the keys was akin to watching a skilled acrobat. Denk leaned forward, concentrating, nodding his head to the page turner when he was ready. The second etude was slower in pace but musically as rich as the first. The slower pace allowed Denk to become a more physical performer and this is where I get distracted. It's my pet peeve I guess, but having to endure way too many "rock star" grimaces that looked so stupid and fake as a teenager, I have an aversion to overly emotive, dramatic performers who make these poses as if to say "ahhh- look at me and how I feel the music!" . It's just a turn-off for me. Yes, I can close my eyes, but on a rainy afternoon, seated next to the Femme, in the warm auditorium, closing my eyes would have been the equivalent of having a cup of brown rice tea and two Excedrin PMs. So I tried to not be bothered by Denk's mannerisms and just focus on the music, which was in turn quite compelling and made me wonder what it was about the third etude and the ones of Book 2 that proved too daunting to perform. Ligeti brings a lot of influences to bear in these pieces- including jazz and Bartok, and they really are virtuoso works. I think everyone in attendance felt let down after getting a delicious first course only to be denied the second because the chef wasn't properly prepared.

Denk made some light hearted comments before playing the Liszt sonata in an attempt to ameliorate the disappointment. He has an engaging stage presence and I do think he won the audience over with his humility and charm. However, Liszt is a disappointing substitute for Ligeti and the Dante sonata has some bombastic parts which gave Denk the opportunity to go big with the mannerisms again. Well-played? Extremely. Interesting? Not as much.

The second part of the program was The Goldberg Variations, which had the Etudes been performed in full, would have made this a concert of  immense musical interest. Denk played these from memory and gave them a lush account, but I had to close my eyes during most of it because Denk was too much for me to watch. The downside of this is the variations started to have the same effect on me as they did on Count Keyserling, and soon I would feel myself bordering a state of slumber. Then I would open my eyes and look jealously at Axel Feldheim, who was seated in front of me with the score in his lap. If only I had a different visual focus I could apply my attention toward. Afterward, I asked Axel if Denk had made a couple of errors in the transitions but he assured me Denk played with great precision and accuracy. Mannerisms aside, the man plays beautifully.

After the concert Denk had an hour-long conversation with John Adams which was interesting, though Adams' disdain for Liszt was pretty evident and I would have loved to see this become a debate about the composer and how we view performers in a historical context.  Though it never got to that point, it was well worth sticking around for, which most people did, including Patrick, whom I looked for but did not see. You can read his account of the afternoon here. When they quit the stage so Denk could go get a beer, the Femme attempted to prod me into approaching Denk to ask him about the drink I once offered to share with him as a peace offering, but I demurred. We then departed for a nice meal at Cafe Rouge before heading back across the bay.

This concert was part of the Koret series of Cal Performances, who have a fantastic season under way. Check their website for upcoming events, which include something for everyone.