Jeremy Denk is a relatively young, up-and-coming concert pianist acclaimed for his renditions of Bach, Beethoven and Ives. He’s also something a bit more 21st century: “a wigged-out blogger,” to steal a phrase he once applied to himself while posting in a Starbucks.
His blog, Think Denk: The Glamorous Life and Thoughts of a Concert Pianist, takes a playful, sometimes contrarian approach to music and culture. One post defends Chopin’s piano music from those who consider it “pure boredom in a jar"; another looks at the use of Schubert in the “Twilight” movies. Yet another features an apocryphal interview with Sarah Palin. (You betcha.)
“I don’t have a mission statement,” explains a cheerful and casual Denk, 39, wearing a striped T-shirt and Adidas Sambas and sitting in a Walt Disney Concert Hall dressing room before a performance with violinist Joshua Bell. “I just want to write things that are interesting to me.” (He’s back in town next weekend for concerts with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the Alex Theatre and UCLA Royce Hall.)
The blog often comes to Denk during the six or so hours he rehearses each day. “I don’t set out to be contrarian -- but you’re stuck there, next to the instrument, for hours and hours in your apartment, practicing. And inevitably, there’s an amazing amount of stuff that hits your brain -- about what you like about the piece, or whatever it is which wouldn’t be appropriate for program notes. And also these loose and slightly disturbing thoughts -- about life and playing what’s now this ancient and way outdated music, and how they interact.”
Sometimes he’s just writing about the craziness of the road; he’s toured extensively and been part of the road show put on by the prestigious Marlboro Music Festival. Other times he’s writing about the clutter in his apartment in New York’s Upper West Side.
But often his thoughts are odd indeed, as when Denk was struck by the gradual stretching-out of the playing time for Brahms’ B Flat Concerto, and extrapolated it into a comic riff about lengthening bathroom lines and the larger decline of the universe.
That piece started with a real scholar’s graph of the lengthening of the concerto over the years. “It looked,” recalls Denk, “exactly like all the global warming charts I see these days.”
The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has praised Denk’s “sensitivity and wit,” writing, “This is a voice that, effectively, could not have been heard before the advent of the Internet: sophisticated on the one hand, informal on the other, immediate in impact.”
Ross, who runs the wide-ranging blog the Rest Is Noise, has long argued for the need for classical music to engage with the wider world. “Blogs such as this put a human face on an alien culture.”
The roots of Denk’s playing go back to his childhood in New Jersey, where he began taking lessons at 6, and later in Las Cruces, N.M., where he flipped over some of his parents’ records of pianist Murray Perahia. Denk attended Oberlin Conservatory and later the University of Indiana; he studied there with pianist Gyorgy Sebok. He made his recital debut in 1997 at Alice Tully Hall in New York.
The roots of his blog are less conventional. In 2004 or so, Denk was rehearsing Mozart in a church in El Paso when an unannounced visitor showed up.
“This crazy man came into the church,” Denk recalls, “and started lecturing me on Mozart and the purpose of music. I wasn’t entirely sure if he was going to kill me . . . or what.”
As he recounted the story to a friend at NPR, with whom he’d cut some radio bits for the network’s “Performance Today” program, she insisted he document his adventures in writing. What started out as journal entries evolved into Think Denk.
Denk’s blog and his playing inform and complement each other: “He has a distinctive way of looking at things,” says his friend, British cellist Steven Isserlis, “and that comes out in both his playing and his writing. Wit is very important in a musician -- and so are curiosity and the ability to articulate.”
The pianist’s writing shows his interest in the odd corners of pieces, and his fondness for pushing ideas, musical or otherwise, to the breaking point.
The same is true of his choice of repertoire. Interestingly for a musician interested in the latest technology, his taste in music includes contemporary pieces -- by Ligeti, Elliott Carter and Thomas Adès -- as well as much earlier work.
Overall Denk says he’s attracted to strange and difficult pieces from any period, whether Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations or Charles Ives’ Second Sonata -- what he calls “really arcane and far-out pieces. I’m drawn to these pieces that are on the edge of playability, of sanity, on the edge of proportion -- whatever.”
Lately, he says, he’s been playing a lot of Bach. Perhaps suiting Denk’s relatively cheery personality -- by the standards of someone playing a body of music that has its share of angst and longing -- the pianist thinks much Bach is played with far too much sorrow in its soul. That includes the famously eccentric interpretation that made Glenn Gould famous, which Denk finds “brilliant” but too full of ego.
“Bach for me is a lot more humane -- a smiling, generous composer. He wrote music to be performed not by hermetic weird geniuses, but every day in the coffee house. It breathes. And the music is shared -- it irradiates this tremendous warmth!”
So far, Denk’s performances have drawn rapturous reviews for his choice of material and his intellectual curiosity.
He’s been praised for the intimacy of his playing, his musical athleticism on difficult work and his ability to conceive the overall shape and structure of a long piece without getting lost in the details.
Although Denk has developed an underground reputation as the-best-pianist-you’ve-never-heard-of, he’s got a long way to go to reach the world domination of a classical star such as Lang Lang.
For instance, though his tour with Bell has exposed Denk to a wider audience, as of now he doesn’t have a recording as a leader or soloist to his name.
That could begin to change this year, when a solo collection of Bach partitas under his name -- alongside appearances on recordings of Corigliano, Fauré and Chausson -- comes out. Denk also has a recording of Ives’ Second Sonata, for which he’s been praised in recital, due this year.
He also has a rising profile in the Southland. On returning to Southern California, Denk will perform Mozart and Stravinsky with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. The Stravinsky will be the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, a neoclassical piece from the early 1920s he describes as “very witty and urbane.”
Mozart’s Concert Rondo in D Major, which he will also play, is not obviously edgy but still a piece close to his heart, he says. “I have great pleasure playing that -- the harmonies couldn’t be more traditional, and on top of all of it is this wonderful impish quality -- the joy of playing the piano.”
And the pianist, who last week appeared at a Santa Monica benefit for the Ojai Music Festival, will serve as the festival’s music director in the future.
At this point, he’s not certain which way he wants to go. “I certainly haven’t been guilty of thinking too career savvily,” he says.
“But on other hand, things seem to be moving in the right direction. And I seem to spend a lot of time playing the music I really love, music that really gets me. And I get tremendous satisfaction in that. I guess I want to be well regarded enough to do the stuff I really like.”