Lee Hartman spoke this week with pianist Jeremy Denk, who has earned equally stellar reputations as a solo performer, chamber collaborator extraordinaire, and prolific writer. In this interview Hartman and Denk discuss the pianist’s fast-approaching visit to Kansas City on October 13, when he will perform with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Friends of Chamber Music’s 2012–13 season.
Lee Hartman: Thanks taking the time to speak with me today. You’re coming to Kansas City on October 13 with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with a program of Bruch, Brahms, and Dohnanyi. Why this program for Kansas City?
Jeremy Denk: They’re all beautiful pieces! I wanted to do the Brahms Horn Trio, which I think is one of the most beautiful pieces in the whole chamber music repertoire. With those people in mind we could also perform the Dohnányi [Sextet], which is more fun and folksy. With the Bruch pieces, it’s an all-Romantic program, so I don’t think there’s a great intellectual leap for these selections.
LH: How did you get your start on piano?
JD: My parents had a lot of classical records. For some reason I was obsessed with Murray Perahia playing Mozart concertos when I was a kid. I was always attracted to classical greatest hits albums. Around age 5 or so I asked for lessons and went for it.
LH: Your playing has taken you all over the world. You’re frequently a recitalist and collaborative artist and you now have 18 records to your name…
JD: 18?! Wow that’s a lot… [laughs]
LH: Right! In particular your Ives recording was nominated for a Grammy. But your article on Ives for the New Yorker thrust you into the limelight as an obsessive and dedicated but also a musical and self-deprecating writer. You continue your writing in your popular blog, think denk. What drives you to write? Is it different from what drives you to perform?
JD: I’ve always been book-crazy. I was almost an English minor but I love to spend hours in the park reading. At a certain point it seemed like a natural fit, an outlet. Playing the piano is very solitary and brain-intensive, and writing was an outlet for all the thoughts that were there that couldn’t go anywhere else. Some of the weirder ones, the funnier ones that wouldn’t belong in a preconcert talk. The kind of connections between the trivialities of normal life and grappling with these super profound masterworks. My friends encouraged me to start a blog. So it’s using music for my writerly self, a muscle I had forgotten to use. I started using it and I found myself loving it. I just got frustrated reading program notes that I didn’t like. I just wanted to talk about music in my own way.
LH: Writing about music in your own way has created some blowback for you, in particular your piece on theGoldberg Variations. Some commentators and other music writers were aghast that you would write and say such things about such a vaunted piece.
JD: Well, secretly, I was hoping to get some of that. I think it’s clear that in that piece that I adore the Goldberg Variations and that Bach is one of my very favorite composers. When you spend enough time over such a piece, neuroses happen. It was the same when I was practicing the Hammerklavier. I wrote a few blogs about the extreme mental state that you get into when that happens. There was one in which the Hammerklaviertheme gets inverted and it sounds to me like Three’s Company. It sounds unpromising but I think it makes sense somehow.
LH: It seems like you’re breaking down that wall for younger audiences.
JD: Yes. I don’t like playing pieces the way they’ve always been played with the traditions of rubato that people have always passed down. So in the same way I don’t like to talk about classical music as it has always been talked about.
LH: Does that statement speak to how you programmed your recording from May 2012 in pairing Ligeti with Beethoven?
JD: One of themes I was trying to put across [with that recording] was that both of those pieces are attempting go beyond what the instrumentalist can do or music can accomplish. They are pieces on the edge; they explore extreme states. Ligeti was obsessed with chaos theory and mathematical developments and there’s a bizarre mathematical audacity in the last movement of the [Beethoven] Op. 111 which happens to be some of the most profound and emotional music ever written. It’s in this space that they do these incredibly complex experiments with rhythm and time or the appearance of time, yet the music is incredibly touching and soul-fulfilling. I’m really interested in music like that. One of the possible titles for that album was “Trips to Infinity.” The second movement of the Beethoven is one of the greatest accounts of infinity in music that I can think of. It’s far better than pieces like Mahler 9, because Beethoven can in 16 minutes to get the infinite, where other composers have tried and failed. The Ligeti is more like morsels of infinity, fractions of it. Mahler needs a whole orchestra to do all this.
LH: In your recordings and career you obviously collaborate a lot. With whom have you had your most successful and reward collaborations?
JD: My long relationship with Joshua Bell has been very rewarding. It’s brought me to a lot of audiences and has taught me a lot about performing and music making. We did that big recording last year [French Impressions]. We did some traditional repertoire and some non-traditional but I think both our styles of playing came across. Sometimes you don’t recognize your own playing on recordings but this one I do.
LH: You’ll be collaborating with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center when you’re in Kansas City. How did that collaboration come about?
JD: The current directors [David Finckel and Wu Han] had approached me about the project and some special projects. I was keen because of course they are a great and storied institution and I’ve spent a lot of time learning the art of inserting a piano into an ensemble, without destroying the ensemble. […] Part of David Finckle’s and Wu Han’s job is to build a family of musicians.
LH: Are you currently home? Are you getting off a project or about to launch a new one?
JD: I’m home this month mostly. I played a little bit in Louisville, but otherwise I’ve been here in New York trying to remember what it’s like to be home—doing yoga, cooking healthy meals, enjoying domestic life for a little while. And writing! I have a lot of enormous writing projects I have committed myself to and they’re stressing me out.
LH: Can you share what those projects are?
JD: First of all there’s an opera libretto that I’m working on for 2014. There’s an article on Bach for the New Republic and another article that I’m not at liberty to speak about yet. A couple other big magazine pieces. But this opera libretto has to be finished before the composer can start writing music. So there’s a big deadline there.
LH: With whom are you collaborating on that?
JD: Steve Stucky. It’s very irreverent, this opera. Extremely. It’s for Ojai in 2014. I have absolutely zero experience with writing a libretto but this is not a libretto in the usual fashion of librettos. You’ll see.
Pianist Jeremy Denk performs with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on October 13 at the Folly Theater for the Friends of Chamber Music. Jeremy Denk’s blog can be found here. For more information about the upcoming performance visit http://www.chambermusic.org
Top Photo: Jeremy Denk (Photo by Samantha West)