Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Jeremy Denk, A Renaissance Musician's Musician Explores Classical And New Musical Logic And Storytelling Without Trace of Deconstruction

"The winner of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, [Jeremy] Denk has traveled the world as superstar violinist Joshua Bell's pianist since 2004, and this season made important debuts with the San Francisco and Houston symphonies and at Carnegie Hall as a soloist with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His repertoire is unusually broad, ranging from Bach through music so new the ink is still wet, and at the Great Lakes festival he's performing pieces by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, William Grant Still and Leon Kirchner.

"Jeremy is a musician's musician," says Bell. "Everything he does has a logic to it, but that's not enough in music. He's really a storyteller, which is the most important thing." ...

What's the intent?

Classical music is a re-creative art for the performer, whose job is to realize the intent of the composer. This is, as Denk says, "a complicated transaction." A century ago, Romantic performance tradition gave musicians the right to take certain liberties with the written score to communicate their own subjective emotional response to the music.

The notion of an objective style of performance took hold in the 20th Century. Textural fidelity became a mantra as every phrase marking, tempo indication, accent and other details in the score were to be treated as scripture. But the interpreter still has countless decisions to make -- How loud? How short? How fast? The answers are always contextual, tied up with an understanding of musical structure, historical style, a composer's language and musical meaning.

Denk says that his interpretations begin with a desire to "hear the pitches freshly." He calls himself a "fervent score believer" but is equally mindful that the composer can never write down everything. He recoils from dry performances that make such a fetish out of the accents, slurs and other markings in the score that the performer seems oblivious to the meaning of the notes.

"There's a certain school of objectivity that's become in vogue, but everybody is willing to admit that objectivity is a dubious notion -- the kind of objectivity of observing every dot and slur in the score is itself an interpretive choice and may not fit in the context of the way the music was written. There is so much else out there."

Denk turns to Beethoven's "32 Variations in C minor." The piece is built on a compact 8-bar theme and descending bass line in waltz time that Beethoven subjects to dazzling alterations. Denk demonstrates the theme, noting two main events: a serious melody that builds to climax with a sharp and sudden accent, followed by a hushed snippet that sounds like mice scampering away. As he plays, his head and eyes dart in an involuntarily dance with music.

The humorous contrast between Beethoven's weighty melody and what Denk calls a "deliberately cheeky" tag provides a thread. "I've been thinking a lot about how to bring those two ideas out," he says. "The outburst idea versus the retracting opposition, the little joke."

In the 32nd variation, for example, a stormy passage precedes a delicately scampering episode in a quirky, offbeat pattern. Denk underlines the humor by intensifying Beethoven's articulation markings, exaggerating the inflections for puckish effect. But he also adds ideas not found in the score -- he relaxes the tempo at times and plays the chords in his left hand so that the second beat is softer than the first.

"You make little choices of nuance that amplify the humorous point of the whole," he says.

Must have options ...

Denk experiments constantly. The ornamented pirouettes in the 25th variation, for example, sprint upward in an elegant rush of passion. Beethoven marks the opening "leggiermente" (lightly) and "piano" (softly). Otherwise, the composer says nothing.

A pianist following the score literally might play these measures in an inexpressive monotone. Denk isn't sure how he wants to play the passage, so he demonstrates his options, applying different dynamic shadings with each repeat the way a painter might explore several hues of green in a landscape. The music blooms with feeling.

"What often happens to me is that I come up with an idea I like and then it's hard for me to imagine any other because I get convinced," he says. "Eventually, you decide that your idea is the most brilliant ever and you totally go with it. Otherwise a certain uncertainty can creep into the performance, whereas I think a certain uncertainly is useful in the learning process."

Tempo is probably the most contentious facet of performing Beethoven. The composer acquired a metronome soon after it was invented and began using it to indicate the speeds he wished for his music. The trouble is that some of his markings are so fast that the music easily turns into a garble.

How to interpret Beethoven's metronome markings has become a hornet's nest, but, as it happens, the "32 Variations" does not have a designation.

Instead, Beethoven gives a one-word clue at the beginning. He writes "allegretto" (a little quick). Denk plays the piece with a spring in his step, but he also allows some variations to breathe with rubato -- slightly slowing down or speeding up the tempo -- to wring extra emotion from the music." ...

Mark Stryker "KEEPING SCORE: Inside the mind of pianist Jeremy Denk as he breaks down Beethoven" (Detroit Free Press) June 13, 2007.


Also see he highly insightful Think Denk at

Jeremy Denk at the historic American harbor once musically celebrated by American composer Elliott Carter.

Now let us praise American musical artists who are proud to be deeply a part of their own musical culture.

Photo credit: (c) Jeremy Denk via Lafeyette College. With thanks.


Today's Bonus link: William Grant Still's opera, Troubled Island, the first grand opera by an African-American.


Blogger JW said...

It's about time that opera was given a proper staging, don't you think?

2:24 PM  
Blogger Garth Trinkl said...

I don't know William Grant Still's Troubled Island, but I imagine that it could very well be an quite important American opera awaiting revival.

Have you studied the score, and are you presently, in any way, involved in trying to interest producing and recording companies in this work?

It sounds like a prime candidate for production in the Washington, D.C. area, if not in Boston or elsewhere. Perhaps the Washington National Opera should mount it, no?

Keep this matter under discussion, will you, John?

2:33 PM  

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