Work for Hire: Piano Man

Jeremy Denk
The New Yorker

by Jeremy Denk

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I was saved the first time from financial ruin by a stroke of luck—I entered a piano competition, in London, and won third prize. Years of grad-school indulgences (liquor, Chinese takeout, kitchen appliances) had left me with a Visa bill of forty-five hundred dollars, and I was able to erase it in a flash. All that remained of my glorious prize, of all those months of practicing, was a photograph of Princess Diana handing me my award onstage at Royal Festival Hall, which I faxed to everyone I knew. At the time, my hair resembled hers.

This close shave made me wonder: How could I convert my high thoughts about Mozart into hard cash? Within a year, I decided to leave the Midwest for New York, in search of a new teacher and a serious career. My first few months in the city were marked by financial panic and a deep nostalgia for closets. The expensiveness of things conspired with their copious availability. I never had a budget. I survived by currying favor at the Juilliard gig office, and was assigned to weddings and parties, where I thundered on pianos that whimpered at what was being asked of them. I made conversation with drunken grooms, society ladies, recently minted lawyers.

But I still wasn’t feeling comfortable. One day, two friends, marvellous musicians who also happened to be employed by a Japanese modelling agency, approached me with an offer. Their employers were interested in producing two DVDs on the theme of the four seasons in New York. It was to be a classical album, they insisted, sprinkled with poppy, New York-themed numbers. My agent sounded a note of warning, but the words “Japanese corporation” tempted me with the suggestion of vast sums. The legendary Max Wilcox, who had worked with Rubinstein on some of his most famous recordings, was engaged as producer—all the legitimacy I needed…

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