Classical Music & Dance

KC Symphony presents pianist Jeremy Denk, powerful ‘Poem of Ecstasy’

Pianist Jeremy Denk made a stellar guest appearance with the Kansas City Symphony, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.
Pianist Jeremy Denk made a stellar guest appearance with the Kansas City Symphony, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. File photo

There are not an overwhelming number of works from the orchestral repertoire that will leave a thousand people breathless, but Alexander Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” is one. Its final climactic moments generated an audible force that seemed as impenetrable as a wall of brick and mortar.

This piece closed the Kansas City Symphony concert Friday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Under the direction of Michael Stern and with guest artist Jeremy Denk, the performance was an achievement of suspense and control.

The opening of the Scriabin was focused and precise yet retained an element of organic surprise as its almost free-floating motif ventured from voice to voice. From there, the piece was a long-haul series of surging crescendos. Excellent solo voices proliferated, but it was the ensemble’s attention to balance and restraint that compelled such an incredible end result. Clean, captivating caesuras had an enormous role in sustaining the energy.

The final chords were given an awesome visceral boost when they were underscored by the pipe organ, the drama heightened by the visual effect of a percussionist climbing a ladder to play the chimes strung up behind the timpanist at center stage.

The beginning of the concert belonged to pianist Denk, who joined the ensemble for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. Nicknamed the “Emperor,” it’s a large-scale, majestic piece that demands, equally, a persistent driving energy and a light, effervescent touch.

Denk provided both, his impassioned performance transcending the orchestra’s less versatile reading, as the ensemble matched neither his ferocity nor his lightness. Despite a sturdy opening of orchestral chords and a flurry from the soloist, the primary statement lost momentum until Denk’s entrance. He carried the first movement, especially during his gentle, nuanced variations. The beautiful second movement was more possessed, more assured, and transitioned into the jaunty rondo, a foot-stomping display of contrasts.

Opening the second half was Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, which, like the Scriabin, was a taut yet expansive one-movement work. It balanced light against dark moments with delicious, grinding tension in the dissonances. It, too, featured immense growth and powerful dynamics, capped by a solemn statement in the trombone. The searing violins topped out at maximum volume, the cut-off like a vacuum. Clean pianissimo entrances set up a last push, with the timpani roll cresting to the final release of the work.

Exhausting, to be sure, but well worth it.