Not simply one of the best pianists of his generation, Jeremy Denk also is an innovative musical thinker and writer. Through his popular blog, Think Denk, he has found engaging ways to bridge the gap between audience and performer. His efforts in this vein earned him a 2013 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” which was followed in 2014 by two of the classical world’s top honors: the Avery Fisher Prize and Musical America’s selection as Instrumentalist of the Year.
Of this extraordinary and perhaps unparalleled trifecta of accolades over just two years, Denk said, “One delightful thing about it was that right before my dad passed away, he was able to see all of that. Somehow, all the pushing me to practice, all that business paid off. Maybe it took a little while, but I think he was very gratified by all that. And so was and am I. It’s crazy.”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra audiences will have an opportunity to hear the much-lauded pianist when he returns to Orchestra Hall for concerts March 10, 12 and 15 with guest conductor Mark Elder. As part of an all-Eastern European program featuring works by Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák, he will serve as soloist in Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Denk has returned to the famously difficult piece, a favorite of his teacher, Hungarian pianist György Sebők, after a 10-year hiatus. The performances of the concerto are part of the CSO’s season-long celebration of its 125th anniversary during which it is revisiting works that it gave their world or American premieres.
According to the pianist, the concerto looks back across musical history, borrowing elements from composers as diverse as J.S. Bach and Igor Stravinsky. “It weaves all these different strands of music into a completely unique piece,” he said, “and it’s like taking the piano technique out for a test drive. You just have to be firing on all cylinders in order to play it.”
Denk, now 45, has been an avid writer since junior and senior high school. As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, majoring in piano and chemistry, he took as many English classes as possible. “So I did a lot of writing for classes then and in grad school also, but when I decided, ‘I’m a pianist,’ I stopped for a little while,” he said. “Then when my friend suggested I start the blog around 2004, it was a really interesting feeling. It was something that I really had been missing that I hadn’t realized.”
His writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, New Republic, Guardian and New York Times Book Review. But a few years ago, he suspended his blog to give himself for time to work on a memoir. He had hoped to have the book done by early 2016, but it probably won’t be until summer before he completes it. “Writing a book takes time,” he said. “I didn’t quite realize how much.”
The project is an outgrowth of “Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Life in Piano Lessons,” an article that he wrote for New Yorker. In it, he recalls his succession of piano teachers, focusing especially on Sebők, and their lessons, some of which still inform his pianism. The insightful piece is filled with evocative passages, such as Denk’s description of the dreaded technical exercises that are an integral part of piano lessons: “As you deal with thumb-crossings, or fingerings for the F-sharp-minor scale, or chromatic scales in double thirds, it is hard to accept that these will eventually allow you to probe eternity in the final movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address.”
Asked why he thought this was the right moment to tackle a memoir, he responded with a chuckle, “I’m not sure I do. I’m trying to make it as little memoir-ish as possible. I’d much rather write about music than myself. The reason I wanted to write the ‘Piano Lessons’ piece for the New Yorker is that I wanted to write about Sebők, who was an amazing teacher and kind of a symbol of many things that I loved about music-making in general. I just wanted to depict him and that whole experience of his European sensibility landing on top of me. And that’s what I’m trying make the book about also.”
Writing and playing piano have a kind of symbiotic relationship for Denk. Sometimes when he writes about something he is practicing, it helps his playing, and the reverse can be true as well. “There are two sides of me,” he said. “I love to make music, and I love to then try to help people understand what it is that makes the music so astounding. One of the problems with classical music is how removed it often feels from everyday life, and I kind of enjoying connecting those two things, often in comical ways and then, hopefully, I aim to make it a little bit more serious.”
Denk, of course, is not the first acclaimed pianist to write a memoir. He points to 19th-century composer and soloist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who penned a book titled Notes of a Pianist, which Denk said has all the “required ingredients,” including whining and amusing stories. “He was a real character,” Denk said, “but you also get to see America and the Civil War when he was touring around and what that must have been like.” Other examples include Artur Schnabel’s My Life in Music and Leon Fleisher’s My Nine Lives: A Musical Memoir, published in 2011.
As important as writing and thinking about music has been for Denk, the piano remains at the center of his activities. Like nearly everything else about this musician, he likes to pursue his music-making in sometimes unconventional ways, such as serving as an artistic partner with the St. Paul (Minn.) Chamber Orchestra. The post allows him to develop multiyear programming projects and perform regularly with the respected ensemble. “It’s a wonderful orchestra — a great tradition,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are in the orchestra, and it enables me to do things like Mozart and Haydn concertos as chamber music with them and work on it over a long period of time rather than the typical fly-by-night — rehearse for two days and play three concerts and go to the next place.”
His most recent recording, released in 2013 on the Nonesuch label, features Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It reached No. 1 on Billboard’s classical-music albums sales chart and was named one of the best releases of 2013 by the New Yorker and New York Times. Denk never wanted to play the piece, because it is so well known, even “over-known,” but a friend of his who ran the Seattle Chamber Music Festival persuaded him to give it a try. “She said it would change my life, and, of course, it did,” he said. He had just finished practicing the work before he sat the down for this interview, and the work’s challenges were still fresh in his thoughts. “That piece, you can never keep it all in your mind,” he said. “Because it is such a world unto itself and there are so many different kinds of music in it and there are so many details, it’s so hard to gather it all into yourself for that one performance.” For some performances, he has paired it with selections from György Ligeti’s Études, a combination he describes as “tearing the world apart and then putting it back together.”
With the honors he has accrued in recent years and the freedom he has to work with his choice of top artists and ensembles, Denk finds himself in an enviable place. “It’s a been a real thrill ride,” he said, “and, as always, I’m just trying to work on the quality of the work and make the piano playing as truthful and beautiful as possible and the same with the writing, I guess. Both of those are very demanding, solitary and neurotic professions. So the main trick is balancing life and work.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.