When you have an artist with the prestige and virtuosity of pianist Jeremy Denk come to town, why not double the impact? That was the thinking of Keyboard Concerts and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, which are both putting the spotlight on Denk in separate concerts this weekend.
Denk returns to the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series for an 8 p.m. performance on Friday, April 27, at Fresno State’s Concert Hall. The next evening, at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, in the same location, Denk will perform Beethoven’s famed “Emperor” piano concerto with the Fresno State orchestra.
Denk is a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award. He’s written for The New Yorker magazine and has a popular blog. His musical collaborators have included Joshua Bell and Steven Isserliss, and his recordings have reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Classical Chart.
How is Fresno lucky enough to have not one but two Denk performances?
Andreas Werz, artistic director of Keyboard Concerts, explains that the timing was fortuitous.
“Jeremy had Saturday free in his schedule before I am driving him on Sunday to his recital for the Carmel Music Society at Sunset Center in Carmel,” Werz says. “Thomas Loewenheim (director of the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra) had always expressed to me his interest in his student orchestra one day collaborating with a Keyboard Concerts artist, so we both thought this was the opportunity. I discussed it with Denk’s management, and soon after we firmed it up.”
Denk’s Keyboard program features Beethoven’s well-known Piano Sonata No. 30 and Shubert’s Sonata in B-flat, both examples of later and challenging works from these composers.
Werz is also looking forward to a third work on the program.
“I am most interested in Prokofiev’s complete ‘Visions fugitives,’ which will be refreshing to hear. I think we have never had that on the Keyboard series. It’s a fascinating series of 20 miniatures, each with a distinct character and mood.”
On Saturday, Denk will shift from solo artistry to performing with a big ensemble.
The “Emperor” piano concerto, which he will play with the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, is tough.
“It is extremely technically challenging and looks ahead to the bravura style of the Romantic virtuoso concertos like Chopin and Liszt,” Loewenheim says. “The work also has a very large scope and can be compared to his famous symphonies in its length and their complex orchestral writings.”
The concerto was composed in 1809, while the French army under Napoleon was at war with Austria for the fourth time. Beethoven did not give it the title “Emperor.”
In fact, no one really knows how it got its name. “Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every sort!” wrote Beethoven to his publisher in Leipzig. This had a strong effect on Beethoven, which must have influenced the militaristic themes in the concerto. There are a few stories about how this concerto acquired its title. According to one, a French soldier from Napoleon’s army occupying Vienna, jumped to his feet after hearing the work and exclaimed: “L’empereur!” He may have been impressed by the concerto’s majestic proportions, or else he was reminded of French revolutionary marches by certain themes in the work.
In the past, the Fresno State orchestra has hosted such world-class musicians as Vadim Gluzman and Lynn Harrell. Students gain a lot from these interactions. So do audience members.
“It is a great honor and pleasure to have someone of Jeremy Denk’s caliber come and perform one of the greatest piano concertos ever written with our students at Fresno State,” Loewenheim says. “It is a wonderful gift he is giving our students and community, and I am deeply grateful to him for agreeing to do so.”
Approximately 55 musicians will perform with Denk. Also on Saturday’s program is Prokofiev’s massive Symphony No. 5, written in 1944, and featuring about 70 musicians.
♦ Jeremy Denk performs with Keyboard Concerts, 8 p.m. Friday, April 27, Fresno State Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 general, $18 seniors, $5 students.
♦ Jeremy Denk performs with the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, Fresno State Concert Hall. Tickets are $15 general, $10 seniors, $5 students.
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