The Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall is enough to catch anyone’s breath. But it wasn’t the grandeur of the hall that struck me; it was the fact that the conductor’s podium was missing from the stage. A bold statement: it was clear Sir Roger Norrington was going to conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke’s his own way.

Jeremy Denk, © Dennis Callahan
Jeremy Denk,
© Dennis Callahan

Kicking off the evening’s performance was Haydn’s Symphony no. 39 in G minor. Although played in a hushed, piano dynamic, leaping melodies punctuated by unexpected breaks in the melodic line resulted in an upbeat first movement. This same high energy was repeated in the triumphant Finale. Defined by a syncopated melody, racing scales and sudden dynamic shifts, the entire last movement felt both nervous and excited. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s never skipped a beat. Brimming with verve, they were perfectly suited to Haydn's fiery spirit, perhaps unlike their conductor. With his arms hanging heavy in the air, Norrington betrayed very little emotion; his conducting style appeared laconic. Regardless, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s was perfectly attuned, and remained actively engaged with Hadyn’s symphony.

Then came Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C Major, Op. 15, featuring the illustrious Jeremy Denk. Praised for his work both on and off the stage – he is a prolific writer and has become widely popular for his blog, Think Denk – Denk displayed true virtuosic talent. Sprinting up and down scales in the first movement, it felt like a marathon performance – and this was just 5 minutes in!

A real star, Denk was also a natural extension of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Ending his first solo in a long trill, Denk leaned towards the violinists on his right; just before his notes trailed off, Denk gave a quick nod, passing the baton back to the orchestra once more. In the third movement, a Rondo, Denk dove right into the wild, circular lines with a calculated and determined attitude. Jumping between his roles as a soloist and as a member of the orchestra, Denk moved seamlessly with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Together, they shed light on the more delicate and classical influences of Haydn and Mozart, without disguising Beethoven’s own harmonic complexities.

Invigorated by Denk’s zeal – or perhaps he just has a hankering for Mozart – Sir Roger Norrington appeared refreshed after the interval. So much so that as the stately, slow introduction to Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E-flat major rang out, Norrington danced on the balls of his feet as he commanded the orchestra. The clarinetist seemed to take the lead from Norrington, gleefully bouncing back and forth as he performed his solo in the third movement.

The spirit of Norrington and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s mirrored the jovial feel of Mozart’s symphony. Marked by its use of clarinets, this symphony is a majestic one, but the fanfare of it all also felt rich and warm. Even in the Minuet and Trio, the clarinet solo, echoed by flutes, was brimming with cheer.

All the way through to the Finale, the lively nature of the symphony rang out. Mostly a scale ascending and descending in scurrying 16th notes, there was a distinct hiccup in the music; it was the woodwinds’ playful response to the hurried strings. Without a Coda, this melody is repeated tirelessly at the end of the symphony, to the point where the actual conclusion comes unexpectedly. Just moments before the symphony reached its actual conclusion, Sir Norrington turned to face the audience and gave us all a knowing wink, as if to say, ‘We’re not quite done yet, but I bet you thought we were!’

A fairly traditional programme of Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart, there were no surprises musically; the entire performance was crisp, clean and masterfully executed. At the end of the concert, audience members enthusiastically rose to their feet. Clearly, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Sir Roger Norrington and Jeremy Denk ought to take to the stage together more often.