Jeremy Denk to mine Bach and Ligeti in Berkeley

10.21.10
Jeremy Denk
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

When it comes to paying equal attention to contemporary works and the old standbys of the repertoire, plenty of performing musicians talk a good game. But not all of them put that talk into action.

The pianist Jeremy Denk, who appears in recital in Berkeley on Sunday afternoon under the auspices of Cal Performances, is one of the true all-rounders. A performer who blends intellectual depth with sonic grace, he has been heard with the San Francisco Symphony playing Mozart, and his latest recording is a superb self-produced disc of Charles Ives' two piano sonatas.

Sunday's recital program features Bach's "Goldberg" Variations alongside the first two books of György Ligeti's Piano Etudes. Denk, 39, spoke with The Chronicle by phone from his home in New York.

Q: Your most recent activities have focused on Ligeti and Ives, and you've quoted the Hungarian composer György Kurtág as comparing them. What's the connection between the two?

A: Actually, I think Ligeti and Ives are completely different, although I was secretly pleased and delighted that Kurtág brought them together. Some of those very meticulous European composers, who we think of as the real purists of the tradition, aren't as snobby about Ives as some people can be.

Q: The Ligeti Etudes seem to be showing up on recital programs more and more often. What is it about these pieces that appeals to performers and audiences?

A: On a very simple level, the Etudes are some of the most striking and instantly memorable music of the last several decades. They're wonderfully infuriating, in that they explore technical and mental hurdles that hadn't been explored before.

They take some of the basic piano techniques and explode them in ways that make them fiendishly difficult, right at the edge of playability. But still, as a listener, you can follow the thread of what's going on.

Q: Is there a connection with the "Goldberg" Variations?

A: Maybe I'm overstating the case, but the Bach is one of the first accepted keyboard masterpieces, and I think Ligeti's music is on that level. They're both tremendously involved with counterpoint, and with this playful sense of polyphony.

Many of the Ligeti pieces have a sense of humor, and that's part of the appeal of the "Goldbergs" for me as well. It's this playful genius having a great time at the keyboard.

Q: There's also a shared interest in mathematics.

A: Both pieces have an obsession with infinity - Bach, through his interest in proportions, and Ligeti, who in nearly every etude takes an idea and stretches into an infinite level. They're two representations of infinity, very different from each other but I hope complementary.

Q: What struck me about your Ives recording was its lack of pomposity. So many musicians take an overly reverential attitude to this music, the way serious Germans treat Beethoven.

A: Even though Ives was a great idealist, one of his great accomplishments was to try to take classical music down off its pedestal. Not that he doesn't want to take things seriously, but he mixes the serious with the not-serious

There's this improvisatory strain in his music. You can imagine Ives hanging out in New York bars and monkeying around with the hymns in church.

Q: You have such a learned and humanist approach to music. Were you one of these musicians who knew early on that this was what you wanted to do?

A: Not at all. I grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., and I went to Oberlin at 16 to do a double degree in music and chemistry. I also took a lot of English classes.

But then I wound up at Indiana University, pursuing this Hungarian piano guru, György Sebõk. I learned an amazing amount from him, although a lot of it was slow-percolating.

He brought in a wide range of metaphors, and at the same time he was very practical about the physical process of playing the piano, about thinking about the ballet of your movements and how they reflect what you mean to say. He was a very inspiring and magical teacher.

Q: In addition to your performances, you maintain a blog at your website, jeremydenk.net, which is widely read for its humor and its analytic approach.

A: That's a tremendously important outlet for me. I have all these thoughts that wouldn't fit in any other category. They don't go in a program note or a pre-concert lecture, but they are nonetheless integral to your thinking about the piece.

I've always been dually obsessed with music and literature, so it's something I enjoy. I think it's really hard to make an intelligent and readable connection between words and music. Any time you have to put something in writing it forces a certain clarity of thinking - you find out whether there's any there there.