Pianist/Blogger Jeremy Denk

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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The Pianist as Blogger (and Vice-Versa)

Jeremy Denk, piano
J.S. Bach’s The Goldberg Variations (upcoming recording)
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

The Oberlin Orchestra
Carnegie Hall, New York
Jan. 19, 2013
(Other engagements by Denk on his website)

Writing in a blog posting for National Public Radio entitled, “Why I Hate the Goldberg Variations,” pianist Jeremy Denk, who has been recording the Bach pieces in New York, called them “The Martha Stewart of variations…. preternaturally happy, cheerful, perfect, organized, clean, boring, popular.” One reason to hate them, he wrote, was because everyone else loves them. “The Goldbergs are like a friend you have who always does everything right. This friend always answers his emails, keeps a clean house, has a kind word for everyone, behaves properly at concerts, writes thank you cards, grooms himself assiduously, knows how to tie a tie, (and) never eats Burger King at 2 AM.”

Denk was a little more circumspect in talking about Bach’s work during a phone interview from his apartment in New York (where he will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major with the Oberlin Orchestra on Jan. 19 at Carnegie Hall; see his touring schedule for other venues and programs). It is clear on the one hand that the pianist has a well-honed sense of humor; it is also clear that he actually admires the Goldberg Variations very much. While he wrote in the blog that the variations are like a trendy bar that somehow keeps staying trendy, and that as 80 minutes written in the same key of G major, they are a recipe for boredom, what he said on the phone was that he looks at the variations as an enormous jazz riff by Bach, “the longest jazz riff ever written.”

“It’s a little daunting to be recording them, but I’ve played them enough that they feel like old friends. … Recording can go a million ways,” he said. “I’m not one of those ‘set in stone’ pianists. The Goldberg Variations are a world, a whole cosmos, but each variation has its own facets.” Also, the variations are funnier than many people think, he said. “Maybe it’s just my own sensitivity to the comic, but I think there is a sense of playfulness in the piece.”

A New Mexico native, Denk, born in 1970, grew up in Las Cruces, and majored in chemistry and piano performance at Oberlin College before earning graduate degrees from Indiana University and Juilliard. He has appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and others. In March 2011 he stepped in at the last minute to replace Martha Argerich and made his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. In the same month, he agreed to step-in to replace Maurizio Pollini in recital, making his solo recital debut at Carnegie Hall in New York. As a chamber musician, he has appeared in the Santa Fe, Marlboro, Seattle, Verbier and Spoleto festivals. He regularly tours, records and performs with his friend, violinist Joshua Bell.

Denk, the writer, has had the opportunity not only to express his literary side in a blog, “Think Denk,” but to write for The New Yorker magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. “I’ve always loved reading and writing. I was almost an English minor. A friend at NPR told me I should start blogging, so I did,” he recounted.

“There are not that many pianists who like to write. I find it connects me to the outside world, somehow. I enjoy trying to find an angle to write about something (like the Goldberg Variations) that seems so obvious. Practicing the piano for many hours a day is a very solitary thing,” he said. “It’s surprising how many idiotic thoughts come up. It has it’s own mania. Writing is frustrating and perfectionistic, just like playing the piano.”

A new piece he is working on for The New Yorker is a reaction to something his father sent him — the diary his piano teacher kept between 1981 and 1984, when Denk was 11-14. “It’s about piano lessons, and memories,” he said. “It’s tricky because you have to choose the tone carefully.”

A November 2011 entry in his blog entitled, “My Debut,” tells the story about his parents moving into a retirement home in southern New Mexico, and Denk’s visit with them there. The word soon gets out that he is a pianist, and he is invited to play a short concert for the entire population of the residence — on their electric piano:

“The first button I pressed set off a deafening bossa nova. The staff of the facility rushed in to try to help, but I think at last after five minutes of struggling, I was the one who ‘fixed; it, randomly hitting at buttons that seemed important. Out of the instrument came something sampled from an actual piano somewhere.

“As I sat at the bench, a cold terror crept over me. I realized I really had nothing to play for this situation. My mother had strictly forbidden me to play anything too 20th century in exactly the same voice as she would forbid me to stay out past 9 pm when I was 15. So, with a song in my heart, I just launched into the Goldberg Variations, planning to stop when someone screamed or … I distinctly heard someone say ’that piano sounds terrible.’ Yes, there was something collegiate about their frankness as well.”

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