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Pianist Jeremy Denk gave a recital of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Clara Schumann and Missy Mazzoli on Saturday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. It was far from ordinary. There were few people present in the venue — we were told just a smattering of Philharmonic Society of Orange County staff and board members, perhaps 10-12 people — because this was a recital during a pandemic, designed for home viewing via live streaming.

Thus, your reviewer sat down at his computer (a MacBook Air) a few minutes before the appointed hour and plugged in his headphones (a pair of HD 580 precision Sennheisers).

The Philharmonic Society is presenting several streamed concerts this fall and winter, with plans to give many live, in-person concerts — following COVID protocols limiting audience size, requiring masks, etc. — starting in January. So far, some of the streamed concerts have been live, and some taped before broadcast.

Jeremy Denk Credit: Photo courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County/Shervin Lainez

Society patrons, we are told, prefer live; the powers that be at the Philharmonic Society upped the ante for Denk, making the stream local as well. The knowledge that Denk was sitting down at the piano just a few miles away as I watched did add something, I’m not sure what, to the experience.

This is new territory for everyone, of course, Denk as well, and he went through at least five iterations of his program (that I saw), the latest coming on late Friday night. The agenda bookended sonatas in C-minor by Mozart (K. 457) and Beethoven (Op. 111, his last) with pieces by two female composers, Clara Schumann and Missy Mazzoli (born 1980). Denk may have been overthinking a little; in the event, these pieces didn’t throw sparks off each other in the way he may have intended.

It was all good to great music, though, and Denk played in his typical probing but firmly directed manner, equal parts scientist and poet. One felt that there wasn’t a measure he hadn’t thought about and yet he never bogged down in minutiae. The musical thought flowed easily, but not shallowly.

The Mozart sonata, considered his most Beethovenesque, made for a somewhat severe opening, its serenade-like middle movement a bit of a break. Likewise, Beethoven’s final sonata is never a walk in the park for the listener, despite its ultimate journey heavenwards. By this point in the recital, I felt I would have enjoyed something a tad less cerebral, no insult to the music intended.

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 21 (the program info misidentified them as a different Three Romances, Op. 22) were welcome and accomplished: a soulfully melancholy opening, a charming scherzo and an agitated, Chopinesque waltz, all written around the time that her husband Robert was installed in a mental asylum, Denk explained. Mazzoli’s “Bolts of Loving Thunder,” written in 2013 for Emmanuel Ax, is a kind of swirling and granitic homage to Brahms, with more hand crossings than seems kind, and indeed Denk had some difficulties with them.

In all, then, it was a rather brainy slate of pieces, maybe a little too brainy for livestream, where I found it a harder to become totally immersed. Transcendence is hard to come by on a laptop. The sound was fine, though not as good as being there. It was clear and clean and even detailed, but it lacked the color and resonance one finds present in the hall. The pictures, too, four different remote camera shots, were excellent, sharp and clear. The small audience clapped lackadaisically between numbers, only emphasizing the emptiness of the hall.

This livestream was an impressive achievement for the Society, both technically and artistically. The Denk recital could prove to be a workable model for the near future, if audiences cannot gather for the concerts scheduled early next year.

Denk, a gifted writer, winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and Avery Fisher Grant, and an eloquent public speaker, gave spoken program notes as he went along. They were concise and cogent, but I’m always of two minds about this sort of thing. It turns a concert into a seminar. Imagine Mick Jagger explaining “Satisfaction” before he sang it.

The concert was followed by a live Q and A, both Denk and Society artistic director Tommy Phillips wearing masks. The recital will be available to stream for a week on the Society’s website (philharmonicsociety.org).

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.

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