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Pianist expands sound with a little help from his friends

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:21AM

Piano master Emanuel Ax, who serves as inspiration and guru for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Keys to the City Piano Festival, wants to show audiences as many of the different things that the keyboard instrument can do as possible.

Over the last two weeks, concertos, solo recitals, works for two pianos and even eight pianos (!) have filled Orchestra Hall and spilled out into the streets and rotunda of the larger Symphony Center building.

Sunday afternoon held what used to be called “piano accompaniment,” then “partnering” and now seems to have emerged as a profession devoted to “collaboration.” It’s what happens when a pianist plays with a singer, a solo player of another instrument, or even chamber music, particularly when working with a pick-up group such as happens when orchestral musicians or concert soloists decide to make more intimate music together.

Ax tapped his young colleague Jeremy Denk, 42, a multifaceted concert and recording artist, writer, lecturer and blogger, to put a program dubbed “The Collaborative Pianist” together. Sharing Ax’s open spirit and good taste, Denk in turn assembled three of his own musical friends: young wizard of the violin Stevan Jackiw, tenor Nicholas Phan — a singer so devoted to the guiding principle that he’s even co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute, in Chicago — and CSO cellist Katinka Kleijn, and produced a varied and rewarding program.

Denk, who is as at home with Beethoven sonatas as he is with moderns Charles Ives or Gyorgy Ligeti, was the flexible collaborator and elegant pianist throughout. Never showing off, he was neither any sort of blank slate, finding little touches of emphasis, fingering and responses to his colleagues in each work.

There was news, too. In both the too-little heard 1931-32 Duo Concertant of Stravinsky and Dvorak’s deep F minor Trio, Op. 65 of 1883, Jackiw showed himself to be one of the best and most interesting young violinists heard in long time. Combining a beautiful tone with great grasp of dynamic range and choices and an intelligence that you sense but which never overpowers the music, the American player and Harvard graduate of Korean and German background reminded me of Christian Tetzlaff in his clarity and commitment. Keep your eyes and ears open for him.

Tenor Phan seemed to be up against some weather or other seasonal issues — the bane of any singer, especially a recitalist — but he, too, is both a highly intelligent and attractive artist. In Schumann’s great 1840 song cycle to Heine poems, “Dichterliebe” (“Poet’s Love”) Op. 48, he particularly impressed with his text reading and, especially in “I Wept in My Dream,” his keen understanding of silence and soft singing. Both he and Denk have fine blogs, too, “Think Denk” and “Grecchinois” (a bow to Phan’s mixed Greek and Southeast Asian Chinese ancestry), respectively.

The wide-ranging Dvorak again showcased Jackiw, with passionate and nuanced contributions from Denk and Kleijn.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7)

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