Pianist Jeremy Denk brings intelligent, irreverent approach to music and career

By David Fleshler

Jeremy Denk performs Copland's Piano Concerto April 10 and 11 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. Photo: Henry Fair.

It was winter in Lander, Wyoming, and the pianist Jeremy Denk had just finished a recital. Well-wishers were coming backstage, but there wasn’t much time to talk.

“The stagehands were completely stoned and had nothing on their minds but getting us out the door,” Denk recalled. “People were coming backstage, and they were just pushing us out the door. I’ll never forget the door clicking behind us. In downtown Lander everything was closed. We end up at the 7-11 having nachos and hot dogs– – you known those little hot dogs they have rotating? – and that was our post-concert banquet.”

Deglamorizing the life of the concert pianist is something of a specialty for Denk, who performs this weekend in Miami with the New World Symphony. He writes a blog, Think Denk, which has won an enthusiastic following for its musings on classical music and the life of the touring pianist, such as why, why, Hannibal Lecter has to be listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations just before killing, and partly consuming, those prison guards, and the ennui that set in at a Naples, Florida, hotel, where, unable to face the mauve art of his room or the grilled chicken Caesars of the restaurant, he escapes to the movie Twilight: New Moon.

He has also become one of the most respected concert pianists in the world before the toughest audience there is, his fellow musicians. While some pianists show up, make the floor shake with Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, and move on to the next city, Denk is known as a musical intellectual, a man who reads and thinks intensely about what he is to perform, with a gift for translating deep insight into a composer’s work into a spontaneous, living performance in the concert hall.

Denk comes to the Arsht Center in Miami this weekend to play Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto, a 1926 work that the young American composer wrote shortly after returning from studying in Paris. It will be Denk’s first time playing it. “It’s a piece I’ve always been curious about,” he said, speaking by telephone from Seattle, where he was playing a recital. “It’s very early. It’s super jazzy, in the general vein of Rhapsody in Blue. It’s hugely orchestrated. It’s very symphonic. I’m always learning new pieces. It’s something that’s endemic to my life, and it’s exhausting.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, the New World’s founder and artistic director, suggested the piece to Denk, saying the jazzy, exuberant concerto suited his style. “It’s extremely colorful and zany and crazy and full of life and generosity of spirit,” Tilson Thomas said. “And these are all things I think of when I think of Jeremy. There are elements of jazz, ragtime, tone clusters, all held together by a pervasive American quality. And like everyone who has heard Jeremy play, knows he has a very deep understanding of how music like this works.”

“He’s very smart,” Thomas said, “but he also has a tremendous sense of humor, and a very unusual view of the world and the arts. I like people who are very bright, very well informed, but are not reverential.”

Denk, 39, has an unusual background for a concert pianist. Unlike many of his colleagues, who trained for their careers with the single-mindedness of Olympic gymnasts, Denk had a broad range of interests. As a teenager in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he loved playing the piano, loved literature, loved science, loved math. “I was really into everything,” he said. “I was a very nerdy and very intense kid.”

Like one of his musical idols, Robert Schumann, he was gifted in both music and literature. Unwilling to narrow his horizons early in life, he steered clear of the usual piano prodigy route through Juilliard or Curtis or a European conservatory. Instead he chose Oberlin College – although he had also been admitted to Harvard and Yale – which has an attached conservatory, allowing him to pursue degrees in both piano and chemistry. It was at Oberlin that he began to realize he stood out among his fellow piano students, that a concert career was a realistic possibility. He went on to earn a master’s degree at Indiana University’s renowned music school in Bloomington, and then went to Juilliard for a doctorate. He won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and his career started to take off.

He has an unusually broad range as a pianist. He is known for searching performances of the classics of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, as well as the works of Ives, Kirchner and Ligeti. He has long worked with the superstar violinist Joshua Bell, displaying the confidence to tour with Bell without fear of being labeled just an accompanist. Today he spends most of his time touring, playing recitals and engagements with orchestras. At home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Denk maintains a rigorous routine. “I practice until I can’t stand it” – roughly five or six hours.

Unlike some cerebral musicians, whose performances can sound like a doctoral dissertation in musical form, complete with footnotes, bibliography and untranslated Latin, Denk’s playing retains its freshness in performance. “Jeremy’s genius is that he can know exactly how a piece is put together structurally and harmonically, but in his performance nothing sounds academic,” said the young American violinist Stefan Jackiw, who has played several chamber concerts with him. “His performances are exciting, spontaneous, and especially, dramatic.”

At a rehearsal of Charles Ives’ Largo for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Jackiw recalled Denk’s analysis. “The way he deconstructed the piece, he made sense of it harmonically, of where the phrases would be going. This chord eventually leads to that chord, with so much happening in between. But it would be intellect entirely in the service of music. It makes his performances sound natural, almost inevitable.”

Jeremy Denk performs Copland’s Piano Concerto with the New World Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall at 8 p.m. April 10 and 2 p.m. April 11. The concert will also include Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Call 305-949-6722 or go to www.nws.edu.

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Fri Apr 2, 2010
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