Sept. 7 2016 09:57 AM

Guest soloist pivots from Ravel to Beethoven in symphony opener

Pianist Jeremy Denk makes his Lansing Symphony debut Friday, performing Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto.
Courtesy Photo

For its 2016-17 season opener, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra snagged one of the most exciting and high-profile guest artists in the organization’s history, pianist Jeremy Denk. But Denk’s Lansing advent hasn’t gone without a hitch.

Last week, the featured soloist asked Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt to change the program — a rare event in the symphonic world — from Ravel’s exquisite Concerto for the Left Hand to a work that’s twice as long and very different in style, Beethoven’s majestic Fifth Piano Concerto, also known as the “Emperor Concerto.”

“The upside is that we get twice as much of him,” Muffitt said of the longer work. (Perhaps four times as much, if you consider that he’ll be playing with two hands instead of one.)

The local debut of a musician who has played with nearly every major orchestra in the country — and written frankly and eloquently about the life of a musician in The New Yorker and other forums — is a big event, no matter what Denk wants to play.

But the switch puts a sizable dent in Muffitt’s original vehicle, a showcase for Impressionist composers. Both Ravel and Manuel de Falla are out to make room for Denk’s Beethoven, but Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” and Debussy’s “La Mer” will still bring the evening to a crashing, watery climax.

After a first rehearsal Monday, Muffitt said the orchestra is “raring to go.”

“No one ever complains about playing the ‘Emperor Concerto,’” Muffitt said.

It doesn’t hurt that the LSO hasn’t done the concerto in Muffitt’s tenure.

“It needed to come around, and it’s a fantastic way to kick off the season,” he said.

Denk, one of the smartest and most exciting classical pianists in the world, is known for tackling the most challenging music in the repertoire, warhorses or otherwise, and making them sound as if he’s discovering them for the first time.

Muffitt excels at the give-and-take of working with guest soloists, but an artist the caliber of Denk, Muffitt said, makes his role clearer than usual.

“My job, in a case like this, is to bring the orchestra to his vision,” Muffitt said. “In this concerto, I really will be deferring to him as far as how it’s going to unfold.”

Denk’s forceful yet nuanced recordings don’t mess around, from his muscular pairing of music by Beethoven and György Ligeti to Bach’s Goldberg Variations to a set of French Impressionist works with violinst Joshua Bell.

But to get to know him, there’s no better place to start than his fluent and fascinating first-person accounts of the highs, lows and ordinary moments of being a musician, most of them published in The New Yorker.

“He’s a very special person in the music world,” Muffitt said. “Along with being an extraordinary artist, he’s a wonderful communicator about music.”

Denk’s prose is a deft shuffle of kitchen sink realism and existential probing. The tug between the performer’s ego and the pull of history and tradition is a frequent theme.

“The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study,” he writes in an article named “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”

In another article, entitled “Piano Man,” Denk writes about the “cheesy humiliation” of starring in a kitschy pseudo-classical DVD as a hungry young artist trying to make ends meet in New York. “Flight of the Concord,” a 2012 New Yorker piece, chronicles in detail the day he went into the studio to record his acclaimed CD of Charles Ives’ massive, volcanic “Concord” sonata. He struggles with the pressure to produce a performance for the ages on demand in a dark little room and the absurd combination of fine detail work with the inspiration his art demands.

“Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address,” he writes.

Perhaps someday, in an article, in his long-neglected blog or in a book, Denk will explain this week’s Lansing switch from Ravel to Beethoven. (The LSO isn’t releasing any details.) It might be just a scheduling glitch. But then again, it might be an interesting story.

Masterworks 1: Impressions With soloist Jeremy Denk 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9 $20-50 Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 487-5001, lansingsymphony.org

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