Jeremy Denk: Taking on the Musical Life and ‘Goldberg’

Jeremy Denk
Jeremy Denk

To tell the truth, when it came time to pick up the phone and call pianist Jeremy Denk, whom the Washington Post had called “a quintessential 21st-century performer,” and “an omnivorous musician, who scales the Everests of the solo literature” on his cellphone, I felt a little intimidated, a little tenuous. I had made the mistake of looking him up on the net, never having actually heard him in concert.

Denk is coming to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater Saturday, Oct. 12 for a 2 p.m. performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” itself a famously challenging Mt. Everest of a composition worthy of the greatness label, as the first pianist in the Washington Performing Arts Society’s 2013/14 Piano Masters seasons.

The thing is that I found in my net travels that Denk wasn’t just good, heck, he was great, amazing, deft, quick and smart, eloquent, challenging, sometimes funny and very versatile. And I’ m not talking about the music or his playing, although most of the adjectives can do double duty for Denk.

I’m talking about his writing, articles for the New Yorker, to begin with, but also an online blog his site called “Think Denk,” which are dense with observation, mood, thicket-like forays into alternate realities, they’re the kind of blogs that give bloggers a good and worthy name, especially an entry called “The glamorous life and thoughts if a concert pianist,” which reveal his sharp, wicked, often self-deprecating humor which gave rise to a thought that if you ever got insulted, somehow, by Denk, in person or in passing, that you might mistake it for a badge of honor.

All this, by the way, occurred even before Denk had been named one of the 24 major talents to receive a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the so-called “genius grants” in September.

I’d only encountered Denk—who tours frequently, and in the past has done so with uberviolinist Joshua Bell—on a spectacular album released by Bell called “Joshua Bell at home with friends,” home being a New York residence that included a full-scale studio, some of the friends, Denk among them, including trumpeter Chris, flautist Elizabeth Mann, Sting, percussionist Joaquin “El Kid” Diaz, singer Josh Groban, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, singer and vocalist Frankie Moreno and Baritone Nathan Gunn, to name a few.

Bell, Denk and Gunn combined on a rendition of part Rochmaninoff’s “O, Cease Thy Singing, Maiden Fair” on an album that was musically, genre-diverse, a fair example of classical stars reaching often far and wide to expand their audience and their interests and challenges.

Denk isn’t exactly an example of a classical artists with an interest in merging his gifts into the pop scene, but his musical interests are nevertheless diverse and intense, especially his devotion to the work of 20th century American composer Charles Ives and the Hungarian composer Gyorgi Ligeti, whose etudes were part of “Ligeti/ Beethoven”, which he recorded for Nonesuch Records last year.

Denk made his recital debut at Alice Tully Hall as the winner of the William Petcheck Piano Debut Recital Award from Juilliard in 1997. He has appeared regularly over the years on tours, or with the Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, London, New World, St. Louis and San Francisco.

But now—the Goldberg Variations, which he has already recorded and is touring on. I ran across one of his articles, essays, blogs or musings, called “Why I Hate the ‘Goldberg Variations.’ ” The Variations, which Denk says are a kind of one-upmanship of Handel on the part of Bach, is a little like “Hamlet” in the theatrical canon for performers, pianist become Ahab chasing the Bach Moby Dick variations.

“I did say that, I know, but it’s not like I hadn’t been doing the variations,” Denk said. “I avoided it for a long time, because, well, lots of reasons. For one thing, everybody is going to compare you to the Glenn Gould version(s) of the variations. But you know you will eventually confront them, and it’s a feeling of dread. So it will be my version.”

In the admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek article, he says and repeats, “Yes, I’m suspicious of the Goldbergs’ popularity. I worried for years that I would be seduced into playing them, and would become like all the others—besotted, cultish— and that is exactly what happened. I have been assimilated into the Goldberg Borg.”

The fact that he should be using a Star Trek anology tells you something about Denk, although I’m not sure exactly what. He writes in a way that he talks—full sentences, paragraphs, wayward thoughts seeming to be teleported— beam me down, Scottie—he is a version of the man that photographer Walker Evans urged us all to be—when you go out in the world go out with a hungry eye, and in Denk’s case, hungry ears, hungry thoughts.

There are in that vast palace and kingdom sever NPR segments with Denk, walking through his Manhattan residence where he practices, writes, and thinks and does and looks out his window to the street below. At only 43 years of age, there is something this grey-white haired man in slacks and a black t-shirt working, practicing, deft fingers, against a background of an army of books, including variations of Proust. “It’s full of odd things, I know,” he says. “I practice an enormous amount of time,” he says to us. ‘You have too. This is the life you lead. It’s who I am.” He teaches, he reads, he has, you suspect, a big circle of friends, because even over the phone, or in his writing, you guess that he’s the kind of man who is enormously stimulating, good company , a curious soul who whose table talk is interesting, but a man who knows how to listen, a quality which you would think is obvious. Mock-complaining, he says the Variations are deliberately boring, but that “they’re so good, you don’t notice it.”

I haven’t heard his version, but I have heard Simone Dinnerstein’s version, and you can hear and see what a commitment it is.

Back in the 19th century, Americans in salons might have sat absolutely still for it—this was the world of Emily Dickinson, Melville and Whitman, all of whom he admires and reads.

You presume Proust is on the list, all of which may account for the tone of his writings, the sheer excellence of it.

I particularly liked his written reaction to the fact that the Library of Congress wanted to included his blog in the library, or a seemingly panick stricken blog, titled “Bizarre Boston Blog, in which his cure for living in a state of emergency is to banish real emergencies by making trivial matters emergencies.

In any case, all genial protestations aside, I am willing to bet that Denk’s “Goldberg Variations” won’t be a battle to overcome boredom, that his will be in the playing (which critics have often noted for its generosity) and in the feeling, be another variation, his own.

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