Jeremy Denk – A Pianist with a Literary Bent
Translation of the article published for the German PianoNews on March 1st, 2014
Photo: Michael Wilson
It’s only been a couple of months since Jeremy Denk was awarded the 2013 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, and already he has been honored again, this time by being named “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Musical America. During the December 17 awards ceremony at New York’s Lincoln Center, Denk was in excellent company, sharing the night’s honors with the likes of Musical America’s Musician of the Year, soprano and actress Audra McDonald; Pablo Heras-Casado (Conductor of the Year); George Benjamin (Composer of the Year), and Ensemble of the Year, The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).
Feeling ‘insanely honored,’ Denk thanked the many people who have been actively involved and helpful in his career, singling out the recently deceased Byron Gustafson, longtime manager at ICM (International Creative Management), who he credits with steering him in the right direction. “He always believed in me,” the coffee addict told me over tea (!) the next morning. Thanks to his musically insightful piano performances, Denk enjoys a large following, both as a soloist and a chamber musician. But his career has also been advanced by his literary output, which centers on a trove of observations gained at the piano. Via his blog, www.thinkdenk.com, he not only takes his fans beyond the spectrum of the concert hall and into his personal world, but into the realm of contemporary culture, as well. While discussing literary greats we both admire, Denk mentioned Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed, an Essay in Nine Parts. “Through the fusion of the comic and the trivial with the serious and the important, there does appear an element of great reverence for great works of art,” says Denk, referring to Kundera, and continues to describe how Kundera’s ‘betrayal’ is a comment on change, which, according to the author, often means that the following generation of writers and musicians destroys crucial components of great works of art. Says Denk: “Ultimately Kundera wants to communicate the need to preserve what’s unique and irreplaceable in great art, in different ways – and so do I, in my writing and performing. One informs the other.”
Denk’s writing was lauded by The New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross, who described Denk as one of the most talented music writers of his generation. The distinguished New Yorker, in fact, published some of Denk’s perceptive takes on the day-to-day life at the piano. In his most poignant features, “The Flight of the Concorde” and “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, Denk not only shares his musings on musical repertoire and the recording process, but also demystifies and questions preconceived ideas about piano teachers and piano lessons. “People apparently love stories about teachers who drive their students mad; breaking their spirits with pitiless exactitude … I often rolled my eyes at the music-lesson clichés of movies: The mind games and power plays, the teacher with a quaint European accent who says: ‘you will never make it, you are not a real musician’ in order to get you to work even harder …”, says Denk, and concedes: “There’s a labyrinth of voices inside your head, a counterpoint of self-awareness and the remembered sayings of your guides and mentors, who don’t always agree. Sometimes you wish you could go back and ask your teachers again to guide you; but up there on stage, exactly where they always wanted you to be, you must simply find your way. They have given all the help they can; the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you.” One example of a student-mentor relationship providing invaluable inspiration to a young pianist comes from Denk’s own experience with György Sebök, a pedagogue he credits for providing a decisive influence on what he calls the “utopian life of the mind,” and for fostering much of his deepest understanding of music. While satisfying the music connoisseur’s inquisitiveness, Denk also manages to make his writings accessible to a more general readership. It is this ability that has recently led to a book contract with Random House. Based on “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, Denk’s New Yorker article of the same title, it is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the line every American music student has been taught to memorize the treble clef lines E-very G-ood B-oy D-oes F-ine. The book will give Denk further opportunity to expand on his insights gained during his formative process of becoming a pianist, such as thoughts on the moment one decides to become a pianist, where to get inspiration, and how to continue to grow musically. It will also include references to some of his most important teachers not yet mentioned in his earlier writings. These include Herbert Stessin, the principal pedagogue of Denk’s formative years at Juilliard, who passed away two years ago. Stessin was something of an ‘editor’ for Denk’s fine-tuned craftsmanship at the piano. ”He represented the best of what New York had to offer during this period of my life,” says Denk. “He revealed the tricks of the trade through straightforward advice and a practical understanding developed throughout his great experience in the field. He had important counsel to offer when it came to fundamental questions, such as ‘how do you make that phrase work,’ Denk continues. “Of course, he was already quite old at the time I graduated from Juilliard, but I still continued for a while to play for him; and then it was time for me to fly on my own.”
Denk remembers the very beginnings of his pianistic life as a period in which a young and impressionable boy absorbed his piano teachers’ advice, praise and criticism with a fair amount of ambiguity. From his early years as a piano student in Livingston, New Jersey, to Cruce, New Mexico, Indiana University, Oberlin and, finally, Juilliard, he learned to ‘reason with his muscles’, going through precision drills and accumulating reminders of haunting prescriptions, some of which he recalls in his infamous “black notebook” – a kind of “Bridget Jones” diary of a pianist’s coming-of-age. In that typical Denk-dash of half joking-half solemn, self-analyzing yet free-spirited voice, he describes how he was going through his share of idolizing teachers, “craving for a guru”, who could lead the way out of the maze of contradictions his many mentors had left him in. It was not until his late twenties that his career took off. I clearly remember his ‘break out’ moment during his debut performance of the Schumann Concerto at Alice Tully Hall in April 1997, where he performed as a finalist at Juilliard’s concerto competition and winner of the school’s William Petschek Piano Debut Award. I had admired his mesmerizing phrasing and expressive playing, his subdued originality and the fact that he was able to show his feelings freely, be it through his lilting body language or even facial grimaces. This was a pianist to watch, I thought to myself back then, and I was not alone in my assessment. The beginnings of his solo career some years later are very much associated with Denk playing under the auspices of Young Concert Artists and the Stern Music Program at Carnegie Hall, an intensive chamber music mentorship under some of the greatest musicians of the time, including the late Stern himself. “I remember thinking of this experience as one of the happiest moments in my life,” he says. Stressing the importance of objective feedback for even the most accomplished musician, Denk believes that a trusted critic lending a friendly and knowledgeable ear to new repertoire-in-progress or acting as a sounding board for musical ideas is key. For Denk, one such person is cellist Steven Isserlis whose natural musicianship he admires. He has often collaborated with Isserlis, notably at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Another valuable resource he taps for constructive criticism is Yoheved Kaplinsky, chair of Juilliard’s piano faculty. “Lately, when I was returning from all that Ligety playing back to the central, romantic Brahms repertoire, I also played for ‘Veda’,” Denk says referring to Kaplinsky. “We had met again last year in Aspen, and it was incredibly useful work for me – she gave me lots to do.” He realizes that the process of creating and expressing oneself requires acceptance of shortcomings along the way, and it is that kind of realism, which might well keep his genius grounded. Still, the longing for truth and greatness is always present: “There are glorious lessons to learn within the classical repertoire, the common language and grammar, for example, plus the distinct rules and the way to bend them,” he states. “What Beethoven does in his middle period is a ‘page turner’: the harmonic narrative … each new happening becomes both inevitable and surprising – that‘s the kind of thing great novelists aim for. It does give me real pleasure to play a phrase beautifully if I manage to do so, but so does expressing something beautifully in my writing where some truth emerges. We talk about everything in life, why not about music?” A musicological “page turner” has now become one of Denk’s latest projects: the late Charles Rosen’s volume, The Classical Style, is in the process of being filled with new life by a comic opera of the same title. “The opera is the absurdist proposition of turning a musicologist text into drama,” says Denk, who is writing the opera’s libretto. A co-production between Denk and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, the satirical interpretation of Rosen’s work has Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn meeting in heaven and talking about music. “One of the main characters is the ‘dominant’, and there is a love triangle between the intervals, which integrates a fair amount of insider jokes, but largely the comedy will be apparent to everyone,” promises Denk. “It’s about clichés in classical music and how we talk about them. I can just say the nemesis of the over-analyzer gets sent down to hell.” When Denk performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations at California’s Ojai Music Festival in 2009, his half-serious suggestion to festival head Tom Morris sparked the idea for the opera. Five years later, the project will have its premiere at the 2014 Ojai Music Festival, with plans to take the opera to UC Berkeley, the Aspen Music Festival and Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.
“The opera, the book, the rewards … all this is very powerful! But I am doing what I want to be doing,” says Denk. “I am happiest working on something I am fascinated with. Obviously it can get a bit monotonous at times. Friends are a release from all that.” Denk, the foodie, likes to go out a couple of times a week, but also cooks for himself, and he has a housekeeper. “Laundry remains a problem for now; by nature, I am not very neat. When I am involved in a project – and that is most of the time – everything goes out the window. It’s difficult to structure the day when at home, to find my rhythm.” That’s why Denk adjusts very comfortably to the work rhythm while travelling. He likes the routine, the direct preparation that performance requires: “Typically I go to the hall, try out the piano, and practice in the morning, rest or workout in the afternoon and perform in the evening.” “There is a lot of music I really want to play, but I have been consumed by monster projects like the Ives Sonatas, Beethoven, Ligety, Bach’s Goldberg Variations … and now the book. While it’s hard to change gears from a writing project to sitting at the piano, music is always at the core. Writing pulls me over to the piano, and playing pulls me over to the desk. I really want to play Mozart. Inhabit it. Share it. And Schumann. There are pieces I have never touched as yet or want to get back to: Papillion, Sonata in F-sharp minor, Carnival … “ In the upcoming seasons, Denk wants to expand his tour locations, but also return to countries like Germany, where he has played chamber music and duos with violinist Joshua Bell, but no solo recitals. He values German audiences for their level of musical education and interest, and fondly remembers a visit where he played with the Hamburg Radio Orchestra. “They listen!” he recalls. Denk loves to let his audiences in on the process of how he works and how he arrives at deciding for a repertoire. It follows that he carefully designs the liner notes of his CDs to present an alternative approach to the more generic and often much less accessible notes audiences are often exposed to. “It seems regrettable that a writing style called ‘program note style’ ever came into existence. It’s hard to define, I suppose; you know when you read it, by a slight heartburn of the soul,” he says on his blog. His search for innovative ways to communicate with his audiences has also led him to collaborate with NPR Classical (National Public Radio) in a video project that focuses on Denk’s intimate exploration of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Etudes (Denk’s ‘Ligeti/Beethoven’, Nonesuch Records 2012). He also worked with NPR on a weeklong series documenting his interpretative strategies of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’; released in 2013 on Nonesuch Records, the project topped the billboard for ‘Classical Album’ and ‘Traditional Classical Album of the Year’ in 2013. In an interview with Time Out in 2010, Denk explained what might motivate his eagerness to provide new paths to classical music: “The classical piano repertoire is very well trodden, and I don’t like to feel like it’s been well trodden.” But then his light-footed crossings between different media and his very individualistic and eclectic tastes might just be expressions of his favorite state of being: that ‘unbearable lightness’ Kundera describes so well in his work. Says Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world and make friends.” And on his blog, Denk says: “It’s that the music laughs, more wisely and profoundly than any verbal gag could. Humor is a jolt, a trick of timing, a flash of the unexpected, but it’s also a fluid that carries forgiveness, empathy, generosity.” We can agree with that.