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Taming Ives With Head, Heart and Humor
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By Vivien Schweitzer
“THE more you dig into a piece of Ives, the more pleasure you get from it,” the pianist Jeremy Denk said recently, sitting at a piano in a rehearsal space at the Juilliard School. “It’s like solving a puzzle.”
Then he enthusiastically deconstructed Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, untangling and explaining the themes and motifs embedded in the complex textures of this fascinating score.
Mr. Denk is about to release a disc, “Jeremy Denk Plays Ives” (Think Denk Media), featuring two piano sonatas, an esoteric choice of repertory for a debut solo album. But then, there is nothing generic about this adventurous musician. His vivacious intellect is manifest both in his playing and on his blog, Think Denk, an outlet for astute musical observations and witty musings, whether a lament about inedible meatballs or a spoof interview with Sarah Palin.
Mr. Denk will demonstrate his more mainstream credentials when he performs Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra beginning on Thursday at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and on Oct. 12 at Carnegie Hall.
Mr. Denk argues that the Ives sonatas, composed early in the 20th century, are mistakenly categorized as avant-garde works rather than “epic Romantic sonatas with Lisztian thematic transformations.” To the casual listener, the music that Mr. Denk describes in the CD booklet as “brilliant, inventive, tender, edgy, wild, original, witty, haunting” can certainly sound avant-garde. Ives, who made his living in the insurance business, incorporated jazz, riffs on Beethoven and American hymns, marches and folk songs into his daringly experimental piano sonatas, rich in polytonality, thematic layering and rhythmic complexity.
“It’s so wonderfully in-your-face,” Mr. Denk said, demonstrating a particularly maniacal passage in the “Concord” Sonata. “It’s also pretty amazingly ugly. There is something maddening about his sense of humor. Ives is continuously thumbing his nose at you in a way.”
But Mr. Denk suggests that Ives’s tenderness, which he illuminates beautifully in this recording, is underappreciated. “Ives is often about things recalled,” he said, “or memories or visions fetched out of some difficult place.”
He played the harmonically misty passages in the second movement of the “Concord,” where Ives directs that a piece of wood be pressed on the upper keys to produce a cluster chord. “It doesn’t feel gimmicky at all to me,” Mr. Denk said. “It’s all blues in the bottom. Ives knew how to use those little clichéd bits of Americana in a way that suddenly gets your gut. You can’t believe how touching it is.”
Mr. Denk, 40, has been passionate about Ives since his undergraduate days at Oberlin in Ohio, where he carried a double major in piano performance and chemistry. “My entire double degree experience was somewhat of a continuous freakout of one kind of another,” he said.
He had been a “really nerdy high school student” with a limited social life, he said. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted to go to Oberlin and wanted the liberal arts. Obviously I really get intense pleasure out of drawing connections between pieces and poems and literature and ideas.”
Mr. Denk described himself as a “practice maniac,” but his horizons have extended far beyond the practice room since Oberlin. While nibbling an enormous piece of chocolate cream pie at an Upper West Side diner near the apartment he has rented since around 1999, Mr. Denk referred to his blog, calling it “an amazingly good outlet to release tensions of one kind or another.” He said it had drawn new listeners to his concerts. An avid reader of liberal political blogs, Mr. Denk dreams of writing a classical music version of Wonkette, he said, but that would be hard to do without offending people. And he tries to avoid offending people, he added, though he did recently post a rant about program notes.
Mr. Denk, who calls himself “a real Francophile,” is soft-spoken but intense, his conversation peppered with references to various “obsessions”: coffee, Ives, Bach, Proust, Baudelaire and Emerson.
He went off on “a Balzac mania” a few years ago, he said.
“That was a dangerous time, and everything in life seemed drawn out of a Balzac novel,” he added. “I lost about three years of my life to Proust. I’m sure it changed everything, including my playing.
“One day my manager was like, ‘Dude, you have to focus on your career and getting your stuff together.’ ” At that point, Mr. Denk said, “I was bringing Proust to meetings.” He added: “I’m not sure I really had a career route. I was just doing my weird thing, which probably seemed like a disastrous nonroute to many of the people who were watching over me. I remember some exasperated meetings with my management, but they were very patient and faithful, which I’m insanely grateful for.”
Mr. Denk grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., one of two brothers, a son of music-loving nonmusician parents. His father, who has a doctorate in chemistry, has been (at different times) a Roman Catholic monk and a director of computer science at New Mexico State University.
Mr. Denk remains addicted to the chili peppers of Las Cruces, he said, seemingly only half joking: “The red and the green and the whole spirituality of chili peppers. It’s still a huge part of my life. When I go home I go to this real dive and obsess over their green meat burrito.”
When not on tour, Mr. Denk spends time with his boyfriend, Patrick Posey, a saxophonist and the director of orchestral activities and planning at Juilliard, where Mr. Denk received his doctorate, studying with Herbert Stessin. Mr. Stessin recalls having been impressed by “the maturity and intensity” of Mr. Denk’s playing and remembers him as “an extraordinary student who absorbed things very rapidly.”
Mr. Denk said he “was in school forever” until “at some point I decided to trust my own instincts.” Now he teaches double-degree undergraduates at the Bard College Conservatory of Music. The pianist Allegra Chapman, who studied with him, said he was “concerned with a lot more than the notes on the page, always bringing up literary and historical references.”
“Now I try to approach music within a more holistic perspective,” she added. “He is very passionate. He used to jump around the room and bounce about and wave his arms. It was really fun. He tried to get me to look at the music with a sense of humor.”
This blend of passion, humor and intellect, so vibrant in both Mr. Denk’s playing and his writing, is what distinguishes him, according to the violinist Joshua Bell. The two have been regular duo partners since 2004, when they performed at the Spoleto Festival USA.
“You get the intellectual musicians or those who wear their heart on their sleeve without a lot of musical thought,” Mr. Bell said, “but Jeremy manages to do both, and that’s ideal. We have plenty of arguments in rehearsal, which is the fun part as well. The fact we don’t always see eye to eye keeps things fresh and makes me question everything I do.”
Mr. Bell, whose choices of repertory tend to be more conventional than those of his more adventurous colleague, said he wasn’t always an Ives fan: “With a lot of modern music I’m a little wary. Even with Ives, until I heard Jeremy. He just brings it alive. He has such a great imagination, and nothing is done randomly.”
Ives’s piano sonatas, Mr. Denk said, “are in a way like animals that don’t want to be tamed.”
“Each performance should be so different,” he added, one reason he was initially hesitant to record them. Like Bach, he said, Ives leaves a lot to the performer’s imagination.
A marvelous interpretation of the “Goldberg” Variations at Symphony Space in 2008 revealed Mr. Denk’s profound affinity with Bach. Mr. Denk will perform the work and Books 1 and 2 of Ligeti’s Études at Zankel Hall on Feb. 16.
To keep the “Goldberg” Variations fresh, Mr. Denk is incorporating new fingerings, he said, “to reactivate the connection between my brain and my fingers when I’m playing it.”
“I think it’s a real magical place when you have the muscle memory,” he added, “but the brain is ahead of the fingers.”
Changing the fingerings is one way to avoid routine, he said. “I get real pleasure out of writing in a really good fingering. It is like relearning the piece, and it makes you not take any note for granted.”
The musical philosophy Mr. Denk applies to Bach, Ives and other repertory is perhaps best summed up in that blog post on program notes: “I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘Imagine how revolutionary this piece was when it was written’ school of inspiration. For my money, it should be revolutionary now. (And it is.) Whatever else the composer might have intended, he or she didn’t want you to think, ‘Boy, that must have been cool back then.’ The most basic compositional intent, the absolute ur-intent, is that you play it now, you make it happen now.”