The Quiet Genius of Jeremy Denk and Karina Canellakis

The Quiet Genius of Jeremy Denk and Karina Canellakis

In these noisy days of sensory overload and ambient distractions, a lot of musicians get your attention by getting loud – turning it up to eleven, say. Jeremy Denk knows better.

Playing an encore after his concerto turn with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Saturday night, Jeremy Denk held the Uihlein Hall audience in edge-of-their seats concentration with a piece of the utmost simplicity—the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16. It’s one of Mozart’s most familiar pieces—certainly a fixture at schoolroom piano recitals around the world. But Denk played it with such grace and depth of feeling that it brought a palpable hush to the audience. And he played it very quietly, appropriate to the piece’s searching sense of introspection, its hushed beauty.

The encore followed his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 19. Denk and the orchestra–under conductor Karina Canellakis–took the opening movement at a brisk pace, and there were moments when the piano and ensemble were disconnected. But by the leisurely second movement, Canellakis and Denk found their groove, even when the pianist stretched phrases with a gracious rubato.

Karina Canellakis
Karina Canellakis

The rest of the program proved a showcase for Canellakis, who is one of the most prominent “unattached” conductors working today. (She’s rumored to be on the short list to replace Jaap van Zweden, who is leaving the Dallas Philharmonic to lead the New York Philharmonic.)

Here, she covered several musical bases. Olivier Messiaen’s Hymne pour grand orchestre, a richly textured, mid-century devotional (Messiaen was a devout Catholic), which experiments with otherworldly sonoroties and sudden juxtapositions of mood. Canellakis captured the intense feeling at the heart of the music.

César Franck’s Le Chasseur Maudit is a short programmatic piece that spins a fantastic tale about a count whose hunting trip is spoiled when he is chased by a pack of demons. As the story suggests, there is plenty of frenetic string work and thundering brass. Canellakis let the bell tones ring and kept the ensemble together as the music raced toward the climax.

She closed the concert with Beethoven’s spritely, sneakily innovative, and beloved Eighth Symphony. Canellakis and the orchestra had no problem capturing the wit and brio of the piece, even if there were moments in which the sections seemed out of balance. There was plenty of good feeling, nonetheless. And it earned conductor and orchestra an extended ovation.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.