Conductor: Robert Spano
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 on G Minor, K. 550
Dessner: Voy a dormir
Kelley O’Connor: Mezzo-soprano
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Jeremy Denk: Piano
Another depressing winter day, another concert featuring Jeremy Denk, another uplifting evening at Carnegie Hall, and I have to say that I could easily get used to those exciting middle-of-the-week pick-me-ups. After joining his old musical partner Joshua Bell for a recital last Wednesday evening, the astoundingly eclectic pianist was back in the Stern Auditorium joining the superb Orchestra of St. Luke’s for Beethoven’s glorious Emperor piano concerto last Thursday evening, and I naturally was back there too.
As if to amp things up just a little bit more, the program also included another bona fide classic in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and, book-ended by the two Viennese masterpieces, we would also have the world premiere of a new composition by Bryce Dessner, a contemporary American composer well-known for fronting the rock band The National, leading the classical-with-a-twist ensemble Clogs, and writing the score of The Revenant, among many other things. “Versatile” does not even begin to describe him. The cherry on top? This new work would be sung by the dazzling mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 is of course an old friend, but one whose company I hadn’t enjoyed in many years, mostly because I had heard it many times and hadn’t been seeking it out. But our paths crossed again on Thursday, and our overdue reunion suddenly made me a firm believer that distance does make the heart grow fonder as sparks were flying all over the place again while I was listening to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s confidently brisk and radiant performance of it.
The mystery du jour was Voy a dormir, which consisted in four poems by Argentinian writer – and actress, teacher, journalist, playwright – Alfonsina Storni that had been set to delicately nuanced music by Dessner. Unsurprisingly, the most substantial and tormented one was the last, “Voy a dormir”, which she wrote and mailed to a newspaper the day before she killed herself by drowning. An economically hard life as a single mother and a recent diagnosis of breast cancer had apparently become too much to bear.
My favorite song turned out to be the brief, but beautifully atmospheric “Faro en la noche”, in which a lighthouse gently brought light to darkness. The other two were the exotic “Yo en el fondo del mare”, which described pastel-colored aquatic life, and the uneasy “Dulce tortura”, which pondered the joys and sorrows of erotic love. One of the most appreciable pleasures of those carefully crafted compositions was that they let Kelley O’Connor’s magnificent voice and impeccable Spanish bring the poems to vivid and yet slightly enigmatic life. Bryce Dessner looked mightily happy after the performance, and so were we.
No matter how attractive the previous works had been though, I was really in the hall to hear Jeremy Denk perform Beethoven’s Emperor, and that I finally did. I have been lucky enough to hear quite a few Emperors in my concert-going life, and I don’t think any of them were played with the same unadulterated joy as Denk displayed on Thursday. There was certainly plenty of grandeur and power in that Emperor, but those joyful trills dispatched with thrilling virtuosity ended up being the most memorable part of the whole interpretation. And that was enough musical brilliance to carry me through my partly self-inflicted harrowingly long and wet trip back home.