GROTON — If you arrive at a concert at the new Groton Hill Music Center’s Meadow Hall and you think you might be too warm with your jacket on, you should probably take it off before the lights go down. Need a cough drop? Unwrap it. And for the love of music, and your fellow concertgoers, make sure your phone is silenced.
Cambridge-based architecture firm Epstein Joslin and Chicago’s Threshold Acoustics may have created the region’s most acoustically alive concert venue with Meadow Hall, a warm and modern room furnished in handsome blond wood. On Sunday afternoon, Celebrity Series of Boston presented an adventurous and personable recital there by pianist Jeremy Denk, and the afternoon simultaneously illuminated the finest aspects of both Denk’s playing and the new hall.
Denk, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013 and author of the 2022 memoir “Every Good Boy Does Fine” (named after a common mnemonic for teaching beginners to read music), paired an innovative and smartly constructed first half of the recital with standard repertoire in the back. Before sitting down at the Steinway, he shared an observation that in the past when he played music by women, especially shorter pieces, they usually didn’t receive much attention, swallowed up as they were by the heftier runtimes and more well-known (male) names on the program.
For this program, which he is touring now, he assembled a slew of what he called “marvelous little pieces” in five pairs of past and present and announced the lineup from the stage before embarking since it differed slightly from the print program. He momentarily forgot the order during his remarks, but played without scores. The music was clearly solid in his mind, even if the titles weren’t.
Denk has obviously lived with this music, thought about it, engaged with it. The setup of the program was novel, but nothing felt like novelty. Clara Schumann’s Romance No. 1 and Tania Leon’s spiky, percussive “Ritual” were united in their searching quality, while Louise Farrenc’s sweet and childlike “Melodie” in A flat major was answered with the rhythmic gauntlet of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “Study in Mixed Accents.” Because keyboard instruments have historically been available for women to learn and teach on, much of the earliest instrumental music by women composers is for solo piano, and Denk’s program created conversations across time between these trailblazers and their modern counterparts.
The first half’s final pair of pieces flipped the order: present first and then past. The glass window behind Denk seemed to dissolve during Phyllis Chen’s wandering “SumiTones,” a piece that sounded like it was made for wandering through dusky, misty meadows, before Amy Beach’s “Dreaming” provided a gently melodic landing.
In its familiarity, the second half’s music by Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann spotlighted the staggering acoustic sensitivity of Meadow Hall. Denk took the mic once more to explain that the two pieces were “letters to Clara Schumann.” Brahms’s “4 Klavierstücke” originated late in the lives of both composer and muse, he said, while Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major was a young paramour’s dream.
Even within a small dynamic range, the peaks and valleys of the Brahms piece’s nostalgic first movement stood out in vibrant, almost shocking relief; it felt almost possible to touch them. Denk constructed phrases almost as if writing a sentence, frequently lingering briefly but poignantly in the silence between statements. A sense of mature gravity characterized the piece, even in the upbeat final movement.
The Schumann Fantasie, by contrast, tumbled full head over heels. Denk confidently conveyed wild abandon without sacrificing control of the music itself. The pianist had been distinctively animated throughout the concert, periodically shaking his head and sometimes mouthing along with the music, but he was even more so during the Fantasie. Several times he turned his head toward the audience, as if checking everyone was still along for the ride. By the end, the light had vanished from the sky visible through the hall’s wide windows, but Denk conjured a sunbeam to send the crowd home by way of Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin’s “Heliotrope Bouquet” rag.
For solo recitals in the area, I don’t know how it gets better than Meadow Hall. Celebrity Series of Boston, which presents several solo recitals per year, has partnered with Groton Hill to book artists to perform first at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall and then at Meadow Hall the following day.
The next one is pianist Hélène Grimaud, on Jan. 21. If you have a car, it’s worth the drive. If you don’t have a car, it’s worth bribing a friend to drive you. Buy them dinner and a ticket if that’s what it takes.
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Meadow Hall, Groton Hill Music Center, Groton, Dec. 10.