To the untrained ear, Mozart’s works—which rank among the most popular classical music compositions listened to today—may sound spunky and delightful, frolicking melodies with just the right amount of spice. But to the scholar, the Austrian’s erratic switches of harmony, flawless crystal counterpoint, and artistry of resolving chromatic suspensions, and brilliant piano cadenza reminds us why the 17th century composer is still legendary.

Mozart’s brilliance was honored Friday, July 3, when Jeremy Denk performed a piano concerto as part of the Music Academy Festival’s summer program. Denk is a super-human who writes and blogs music; directs Ojai music festivals; leads and directs from the piano without sheet music; and is a bonafide MacArthur Fellowship genius. His Santa Barbara performance, which included a trio, quintet, and piano concerto, demonstrated his multi-dimensional understanding of Mozart’s music through nuance, grace, and musicality.

Trio in E-flat Major for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, K. 498

Usually Mozart’s works are played overly mechanical and crisp, so it was refreshing to hear a lush sounding interpretation that was done in an almost Chopin-esque, French-flowing aesthetic. With his face full of expression, Denk led this trio to allow a cushion of space for every note. The melodies leisurely decanted and ripened before moving on to the next phrase. He kept himself in the background, cued graciously, and let the clarinet blossom and viola sing, with his piano tone and playing gluing every thing together wonderfully.

Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, K. 452

This quintet was a musical game of Twister; The melody went here and there with a Looney-Toonish eight-note figure or a descending line. There were passages where the chromatic suspensions raised into musical cupcakes with piano forte sprinkles. The second Larghetto movement was especially gorgeous with its lyrical escapades spread with trills. It opened with a Renaissance lamentive melody that sounded like tears falling from the clarinet, flute and French horn.

Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466

This time Denk’s back was stage center, leading the sardine-packed orchestra via a piano bench one millimeter from falling off stage. He started the concerto with dark and feisty strings all controlled with his laser accurate right hand. Denk’s clean, wrist-whipping tempos were crisp and saucy. After the opening theme, the audience froze as Denk’s hands returned to the keyboard–piano seduction by candlelight, Vienna 1785. His touch was a liquid legato—creamy and even–with swift 16th note passages that felt smooth and passionate. When he lifted his head, it was as if he parted the clouds and commanded the heavens, the orchestra an extension of his gaze.

Mozart Encore

After an extended standing ovation, the maestro came back for more. I didn’t catch the name of the piece but it was a piano sonatina that had a juicy suspension. Masterfully played, this encore encapsulated Denk’s unapologetic display of letting Mozart’s music unfold, breathe, and punish with technical exuberance.


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