Music review: Jeremy Denk makes his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut with Gustavo Dudamel

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“Jeremy Denk is all over town these days and New York audiences are spoiled,” the New Yorker magazine gloats this week in its listing for a program with the pianist (“searching style and formidable technique”) and Juilliard students on Sunday. Well, New Yorkers can now sulk. Denk pulled out of that concert so that he might make his “long-awaited” Los Angeles Philharmonic debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Martha Argerich canceled last week because of back problems.

‘Long-awaited’ is Denk’s own not-inaccurate quote (from his website). Still, much of the audience Thursday night, it is safe to say, had been eagerly awaiting the volatile and electrifying Argerich’s first appearance here with Gustavo Dudamel. Sparks, in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, had been expected to fly.

Denk is a highly versatile pianist if not always a setter-off of sparks. His previous appearance in Disney was a year ago as Joshua Bell’s accompanist. But at the 2009 Ojai festival, he gave a revelatory account of Ives’ neglected First Piano Sonata (which he has now superbly recorded) that revealed a pianist with, besides that searching style and formidable technique, an intriguing intellect.

And a wicked sense of humor. During the last presidential campaign, he posted a satirical blog in which he interviewed Sarah Palin about playing Beethoven --- “trill, baby, trill.” That is advice he took Thursday in his illuminating account of Beethoven’s exuberant early concerto.


Spirits were high. Dudamel’s Beethoven is brawny and physical. Denk unravels mysteries. He commands an impressive clarity of tone and thought. He brings out delicious details. In many passages his fingers catch the sparkle in his eye. But Dudamel appeared to accommodate Denk more than connect with his soloist. The riveting moment was in a big cadenza Beethoven wrote for the first movement (there are several and this was the weirdest), which Denk made sound intriguingly hallucinatory.

The rest of the program was Mozart. For a short second half, Dudamel programmed Mozart’s brashly brilliant “Haffner” Symphony, so it didn’t at first seem to make sense that an evening devoted to youthful high spirits would open on the somber note of “Masonic Funeral Music.”

Sadly, events in Asia made that choice presciently suitable. Dudamel announced at the start that the concert would be dedicated to “our brothers and sisters in Japan.”

Dudamel’s Mozart is personal and, it seems for him a limitless fount of pleasure and compassion. The winds in the Masonic music created a mellow beauty that was properly pensive but never brooding.

The “Haffner” entered the realm of rapture. Maybe the fact that Dudamel is an expectant father (any day now) had something to do with his mood, which was here one of dancing for joy one second, awestruck wonder the next. What made this special, however, was the flow, the way that wonder and joy were ever present but never stopped the rush forward.

The Menuetto, in the middle, is not weighty. It’s a remnant of the symphony’s mundane serenade roots. But Dudamel danced it so that it was less lightweight music than music lighter than air, a graceful zero-gravity floating in space.

The metaphor for this “Haffner,” as Dudamel conducted it, then might be the symphony as spaceship. The first movement was the thrilling takeoff, the launch. The slow movement was the first chance to catch your breath, the first look out the window, and gasp. Then that Menuetto spacewalk. The Finale was taken at such a heart-in-your-throat tempo that it became the fall back to Earth. The orchestra played as if on high alert.

For all the adventure, the “Haffner” at a little more than 20 minutes is too brief a flight for a full second half of a program. Dudamel compensated with an unannounced Mozart encore: the Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.” He took it practically in a single breath. Sparks flew.


Jeremy Denk: In his own words

-- Mark Swed

Jeremy Denk with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday, $44-$167. (323) 850-2000 or