Pianist Jeremy Denk reveres the music but is not afraid to reveal his irreverent self

02.26.13
Jeremy Denk
American-Statesman

By Luke Quinton

If a classical musician is known for his sense of humor, it’s often comedy in a pretty limited range — strange stories about composers or jokes about oboes.

But the pianist Jeremy Denk is funny in a much broader sense. In fact, it’s not going too far to say, with his impish sense of humor, Denk is probably the most talented artist we have at putting the peculiarities of a musician’s life and thoughts into words.

Denk plays a solo recital — his first in Austin — Wednesday at Bass Concert Hall.

“It’s always dangerous to describe your own piano playing,” Denk begins.

He’s talking about a story he wrote for the New Yorker last year; a searing, enchanting account of his tormented struggle to record a version of Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata that would do him justice — for eternity.

Speaking from his New York apartment, Denk addresses a broad range of topics, from Beethoven and blogs to the question of placing music from the past into the present.

“I tried, in the New Yorker piece, to be very frank,” Denk says.

He was that. But he was also very funny. We read along as the pianist obsessively played, and then re-played, the piece, shedding a little more certainty and control each time.

“My notions of the piece are constantly fluctuating,” he says.

And that was before the editing process. It turns out that listening to yourself play the same work 15 different ways is not an especially happy pursuit. “It’s kind of a hall of mirrors,” Denk says.

Yet, what he wrote wasn’t the whole story. “It’s easier to write about insecurity than security,” Denk admits. The Ives record was a success, and since then, two more have come: an album of French music with violinist Joshua Bell and a solo record of Beethoven and Ligeti.

It can sometimes be a challenge to picture musicians as regular people — they appear onstage, display incredible skill, take a bow, and disappear. Denk’s writing is especially helpful for exposing the other side of this life: the hours of rehearsal, the artistic second-guessing and the inane minutia of a concert performer’s lifestyle.

Except his blog, “Think Denk,” is not a catch-all for garbage. It’s more like a treasury of clever and revealing episodes, all smartly constructed and crisply edited. In one, Denk agrees to play an electric piano at his parents’ New Mexico retirement community — and they mock his song selection. In another, he’s detailing an excruciating performance by a cafe’s barista.

So, what should we make of a respected artist whose blog has candid pictures of him eating pizza and riding the subway?

“There’s an irreverence to the blog,” Denk says. “That’s probably its most prominent feature.” The point is that Denk has no strategy. “It’s really just me, trying to express — me.”

In the tuxedoed world of classical music, his frankness is a little unusual. Most musicians’ websites are plastered with glamour shots: the artist leaning provocatively against a piano; a string quartet taking their instruments for a walk through Manhattan.

“I feel like some of the aura around classical music, the mythmaking of its performers, the stuffiness of concert halls, in some ways puts a veil between me and the wonders of the music itself,” he says.

“Some of the purpose of my writing, and some of the playing, is to remove that — some of the varnish.”

Denk scrubs away that varnish with irony. A YouTube clip follows him around his Geneva hotel room, where he gives us a tongue-in-cheek tour of his pile of clothes on the floor. Very glamorous.

But his musical abilities are nothing to joke about. When Denk plays Bass Concert Hall, he’ll perform on Texas Performing Arts’ new Steinway grand, nicknamed the “Cornelia,” a gift from the Mary Potishman Lard Trust and the Friedman children in honor of their mother Cornelia C. Friedman, who was key in starting the Van Cliburn piano competitions in Fort Worth. Among some Bartok and Liszt, Denk will play Beethoven’s “Sonata 32, Op. 111.”

“It’s a piece I’ve thought about a tremendous amount,” he says. Living up to playing these masterpieces is something Denk portrays as a constant, an almost absurd responsibility hanging over every performance.

“It’s one of the greatest pieces ever written — so there’s that,” Denk says.

“It’s Beethoven’s farewell to the piano sonata. It’s a kind of summation. It actually reminds me why I returned to music in the first place.”

Denk wants that reverence for the music to leak out into the audience. He’s written a manifesto against jargon-y program notes, arguing that they actually do the opposite of what classical music concerts need to be doing right now.

“Program notes have their own conventions,” he says, “and a lot of them are sleepy and tired.”

Blathering on about the same historical touchstones take us out of the moment, Denk argues. These dense paragraphs of technical details do not help a general audience take in the piece.

“I’m trying to erase the distance of centuries,” he says, “and pretend like the piece was just written.” That requires seeing music not simply as a historical document that should be performed in only one way, but as something that’s more alive.

“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,” Denk wrote in his manifesto.

The serious pomp and circumstance of concert halls can be another barrier.

“One of the things people discount in great music is the humor in it,” Denk says. There’s a lot of “wit and play along with insanity,” he laughs. “Polite applause and cocktail receptions are not conducive to Beethoven’s ‘111 Sonata,’” Denk says. This part was a little harder to follow.

There are at least two sides of Denk. One who sees irony everywhere, and another who closes his eyes during an excruciatingly delicate passage of the “Concord” sonatas. “In a way Bach and Beethoven and Mozart are my religion,” he says.

For a concert pianist, “this kind of beauty becomes part of everyday life,” Denk says. “It’s like, I wake up, I make oatmeal, I play ‘111.’ ”

And maybe that’s Denk’s point: Beethoven’s sonata is the kind of beauty he wishes could leap out of the concert hall — and become part of anyone’s life.