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

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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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