I've missed Jeremy Denk. Thanks to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's collaborative "artistic partner" structure, an audience can develop a relationship with a soloist. And few of the SPCO's partners have become as endearing to audiences as Denk, an American pianist who is insightful in his interpretations, entertaining to watch, and engaging in his stage banter.
This weekend, Denk becomes the first SPCO artistic partner to appear in concert with the orchestra since the pandemic began. Friday morning's performance at Ordway Concert Hall felt like the celebration the occasion demanded.
It was mostly a Mozart party, the intermission-less 90-minute program beginning with a captivating confab of a quintet and concluding with one of those exquisite Mozart piano concertos that set a high bar for the form that's arguably never been transcended. Bridged with a wild ride of a work for string quartet by Waseca-born composer Sky Macklay, there was an atmosphere of almost uninterrupted fun.
And Denk can have fun with the best of them. Both the Quintet for Piano and Winds and the Piano Concerto No. 14 were bursting with playfulness, the ebullient mood persisting aside from meditative slow movements that held more wistfulness than melancholy.
The Quintet often sounds like an instrumental version of one of those vocal quartets that dot Mozart's operas. All four SPCO wind players were given lovely melodies to sing; French horn player James Ferree was a standout with his sweet schmaltz on the slow movement, while oboist Cassie Pilgrim evoked unease above Denk's dark rumblings on the finale's minor-key interlude.
The SPCO's artistic director, violinist Kyu-Young Kim, introduced Macklay's "Many Many Cadences" as "maybe the most difficult seven minutes of music we've played," but assured the wary that there was much humor to be found in it.
Sure enough, Kim and his three collaborators brought forth the whimsy of the work, but also its agitated air. Its ample demands were met with marvelous musicality. While perhaps a challenging listen for more conservative palates, a partial standing ovation proved that the effort was appreciated.
Denk and the SPCO recently released a recording of two Mozart piano concertos (Nos. 20 and 25) and his A-minor Rondo, partially drawn from pre-pandemic Ordway concerts. International critics are starting to take notice of the rich relationship that this pianist and orchestra have cultivated, as are record buyers — especially in Britain, where the recording has been high on the classical charts.
The composer's 14th concerto showed off this well-honed chemistry to great effect. The opening movement was taken at a brisk pace, Denk athletically flying up and down the keys, periodically turning toward the crowd, his head bopping about as if dancing to Mozart's tune. The contrasting idyll of a slow movement was full of lovely exchanges between pianist and orchestra.
But it was the concluding jig that best underscored why Denk is among the most entertaining of concert pianists. The opening theme sounded like a jolly drinking song, the pianist's playful interjections like sly asides, and the fastest passages were suffused with a joy akin to that of a trick-or-treater getting their favorite candy. Indeed, Denk sometimes seemed prepared to leap to his feet in excitement. At the work's conclusion, the audience beat him to it.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
With: Pianist Jeremy Denk
What: Works by Mozart and Sky Macklay
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $12-$50 (students and children free), available at 651-291-1144 or thespco.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical music critic. firstname.lastname@example.org