- Jeremy Denk in 2013. Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Pianist Jeremy Denk is certainly admired for his piano playing — he's the featured soloist at the ISO's Opening Night Gala on Sept. 14 — but he earns almost the same amount of respect for his writing, and notably his outstanding blog, Think Denk, which he's maintained for over a decade. A typical free-roaming entry, "Generic Stewed Prunes," finds Denk talking about a trip to a Kroger that "appears to be a City shining upon a Hill" before playing a concert at Indiana University, moving gracefully from discussing yogurt and Captain Crunch to deconstructing Charles Ives' Concord Sonata. In many entries, he dissects sections of compositions, but instead of sounding like a jaded music history professor, talking monotonously of chord structures and where this piece is headed, he's more like a man who has found buried treasure, and is anxious to share it with readers.
Denk has been published in The New Yorker and The Guardian, and his writing and playing garnered him the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant," in 2013. He has both a book and recording on the way in the near future and was named Music Director of the 68th Ojai Festival. He wrote the libretto to the Steven Stucky opera, The Classical Style, which premiered at the festival in June. His concert schedule is busy, including solo and chamber recitals, and engagements to play the great concerti with some of best orchestras in America.
I opened up a recent chat with Denk by asking him about Beethoven's Piano Concerto, No. 1, which he'll perform with the ISO Sept. 14. He has a soft spot for the piece: "I love how it's a glimpse in to early Beethoven. It's epic Beethoven meeting with witty and comic Beethoven, and I really enjoy that combination. I could list a million reasons why this piece is so extraordinary for me." He mentions cadenzas, clarinet solos and a myriad of other delights.
In one of his blog entries, "Jetlagged Manifesto," Denk expounds on what he considers the "Deadly Sins" of program notes. The four sins: historicization, "or the 'imagine how revolutionary this piece was when it was written' school of inspiration'"; making generic, or "the sausage-like conversion of extraordinary musical moments into blobs of generic prose"; insider's club, where tidbits of historical info are supplied that "do not particularly or centrally illuminate the work in question"; and domestication, when program notes reduce "tremendous originalities down to size."
Knowing how he holds program notes to a high standard, I ask him what he'd writer about Beethoven. For Denk, there's no need to clarify that a "classical piece was written a long time ago." Instead he'd try to "impart a sense of the aliveness and unexpectedness of each musical moment," as if the piece were still in the "process of being written." He went to talk about Beethoven's harmonic imagination, sense of humor and the kind of journey the concerto takes in terms of mood and chord structure. Listening to him talk about the underpinnings of the piece is invigorating; I wanted to listen to the Beethoven yet again, to unearth more gems from it, which is the same kind of feeling I get when I read his blog.
Are the activities of writing about music and playing music similar for Denk? "It's about trying to find the unexpected combo of words that will exactly ignite the meaning that you want," he says. "That's very similar to the way you go into a music phrase. [It's about finding] the opposing forces within, in a way that they can speak to the listener."