Words and Music

05.12.14
Jeremy Denk
Wall Street Journal

Classical pianist Jeremy Denk is equally at home at both types of keyboard 
By David Mermelstein      

Jeremy Denk lives surprisingly modestly for an American pianist of rising fame. The living room of his Upper West Side apartment barely contains his nearly 7-foot-long Steinway grand, so visitors are led to a tiny but light-filled kitchen, where last month he expounded on a range of musical and literary topics over herbal tea and green apples. 

In person, Mr. Denk, who last year received a MacArthur fellowship and this year won the Avery Fisher Prize, exudes unpretentious learning and enthusiasm, qualities echoed not just in his playing, but also in his articles for The New Yorker and other publications. The opportunities to write came about thanks to his popular blog, Think Denk, inactive for almost a year because of his increasingly busy schedule. He recently promised Random House a book on piano lessons, an expansion of an essay published in The New Yorker last year.

"I always loved books and writing," said the prematurely gray Mr. Denk, who turns 44 on Friday. Wearing a black V-neck sweater and charcoal trousers, he sat on an uncomfortable-looking kitchen chair. "Though I let it go for a while, succumbing to the single-mindedness you need to be a pianist, the blog seemed a natural way to return to that. And then The New Yorker wrote me, and that sort of freaked me out, causing me a whole new level of stress. It's a very neurotic profession, writing. Blogging is much freer. And it had a wonderfully synergistic connection with my career. Now writing has become symbiotic—or parasitical. It can be very satisfying to write down something about music that's important, just as there's a thrill playing a phrase as you've always imagined it. It is weird being in these two professions at once, but it rises from music as origin. And they both demand a lot of time."

Free time is increasingly scarce for Mr. Denk. Just back from São Paulo, he performs Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in Glendale, Calif., and L.A. this weekend. He'll also play a selection of etudes by György Ligeti on that program, giving audiences a preview of his biggest commitment this season: the music directorship of the Ojai Festival in California, which runs June 12 to 15 and concludes with a concert featuring the bulk of Ligeti's etudes.

Composed in the late 20th century, these short studies have become something of a specialty for the pianist.He performed six of them during his last solo recital in Manhattan, at the People's Symphony Concerts last month. And he recorded most of them, to wide acclaim, on an album released by Nonesuch Records in 2012. "The conceptions in the etudes are death defying," Mr. Denk said, explaining some of their appeal. "Even though they draw from the modern world, they reach back meaningfully to the world of Chopin in terms of lilt and color and phrasing. They are complex but visceral. Their gestures are well defined and powerful. There's passages—little, seemingly innocuous ones—in which there's slowing down, and every chord is immaculate and perfect and has wit and elegance. But it's preposterous some of the things he writes and says you should do. It's not exactly a perversity, but something like that."

Mr. Denk, whose formative years were spent in almost equal part first in North Carolina, then in New Jersey and finally in New Mexico, is also widely admired for championing the music of Charles Ives and for his way with Bach's " Goldberg " Variations, one of the keyboard's most unforgiving milestones, which he recorded last year for Nonesuch on an album that also includes a novice-friendly DVD lecture by the pianist in lieu of liner notes. In typically self-effacing fashion, he described the bonus disc as "really more of a fireside chat."

Yet despite the recent praise, his success with the " Goldbergs " was neither instant nor assured. "I'd agreed to learn it for my friend Toby Saks's chamber festival, and then it was too late to back out," he recalled, referring to a recital in Seattle in 2008. "The first performance was terrifying." Subsequent engagements proved less taxing, so much so that "though I had been reluctant even to play it, I was suddenly touring with it. And then Bob Hurwitz "—the president of Nonesuch—"asked me to record it. He said I was making a unique statement, though I don't claim that. But it does affect your life. You inhabit it, like a house."

Bach doesn't figure on the pianist's programs at Ojai this year (he played the "Goldbergs" there in 2009), but he has his hands full with other concerns, especially the premiere of a work—subtitled "An Opera (of Sorts)"—for which he wrote the libretto. Titled "The Classical Style" and based on Charles Rosen's seminal 1971 book of the same name, the endeavor, with music by Steven Stucky, was initially suggested by Mr. Denk as a joke before taking on a life of its own at the encouragement of Thomas W. Morris, Ojai's long-serving artistic director. "I tried to write something rather serious but kept coming up with these comic thought-experiments," Mr. Denk said, attempting to explain his concept. "It's a little like 'The Impresario' of Mozart with Tom Stoppard's 'Travesties' thrown in. So it's not an opera in any conventional way. There's a lot of spoken text and 18 characters—the singers have multiple roles. To the extent it has a plot, it's prone to digressions and mishaps. People shouldn't expect 'Aida.'"

While acknowledging that "the very premise is absurd" and that the finished product is "music about music" on "a very wonky topic," the pianist-cum-librettist clearly found the effort rewarding. "Steve and I did a lot of giggling during the workshop," he said. "It's very silly and joyful. It's the world's first and last musical vaudeville—probably." Yet despite the self-deprecation, Mr. Denk cannot suppress some deeper feelings for the project, which is no surprise given his friendship with Mr. Rosen, who died in 2012 not long after granting permission for the adaptation. "I'm very happy about the ending," Mr. Denk said. "I think it really captures something about Charles and about the book's conclusion, which is very affecting and touching. Steve first went for funny in the score but then sweet and sincere. And the ending just blows me away. I was in tears several times when we played it through."