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Jeremy Denk Has a Lot to Say About Mozart

October 15, 2019

Called a “thinking person’s pianist ... an artist with a deep soul, thoughtful, probing, alternately sublime and sassy,” by composer/conductor John Adams, Jeremy Denk is all of those things — and more. Winner of a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius grant”) and the Avery Fisher Prize, the North Carolina-born musician who received a doctor of music degree from the Juilliard School, was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A Manhattan resident, Denk, is a frequent presence at Carnegie Hall, and in recent seasons has also appeared with, among others, the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition, the musician toured with Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms. Last season Denk also reunited with his long-time collaborators, Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis, for concerts in 11 American cities.

As for his discography, the 49-year old’s 2012 recording featuring Beethoven’s final piano sonatas and György Ligeti Etudes was named one of the best of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post, while Denk’s 2013 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a must-have for Bach aficionados. And for those seeking a musical jaunt through seven centuries, Denk recorded c.1300–c.2000, which was released earlier this year by Nonesuch and features selections ranging from Guillaume de Machaut to Stockhausen and Glass.

Then there is Denk the scribe, with his witty and provocative musings appearing on liner notes for his recordings and in publications such as The New Yorker and The New Republic. His blog, think denk, offered technical analyses and newsy wordplay, while a memoir is also in the works. But music comes first, with the pianist returning to Southern California to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Oct. 26 and 27, led by guest conductor Nicholas McGegan. I caught up with Denk by phone from San Francisco, where he was enjoying some down time with his partner before hitting the road again.

You’ve performed with McGegan before, as well as playing Mozart with him. How would you describe your musical relationship?

He’s so knowledgeable about this era of the repertory and he’s like a genial guide to it. If I had to describe it, it’s a pleasant, a little bit witty and an unexpected conversation. At least I hope it’s witty, because sometimes witty can go awry.

Why do audiences never tire of Mozart?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question of Mozart and what he has to offer. Obviously, Mozart is often thought of as centrally an opera composer, even though he wrote this amazing symphonic music. But his operas manage to distill something about the human experience that’s special. It’s a revelation, and one of the things he’s able to do in a musical style is coalesce — combine in a single stretch of music even the most opposing emotions — from the sublime to the ridiculous, from tragic to comic. He spins on a dime from one to the other.

He gets that elements of life don’t come at you separately, but emotions come at us at the same time. There’s no easy way to just deal with one emotion. Life also seems contrapuntal in that way. In an opera, he’ll have a peasant character, a nobleman, a schemer — all these different types — and he’ll manage to capture their voices and put them all together in an ensemble in this great picture of humanity. I feel that when I’m playing Mozart, which is why it’s compelling and important to me.

Can you talk a bit about the Concerto No. 19 and do you play your own cadenzas?

I grew up with Mozart and you really feel you can dig into this. There’s a changeability that’s tremendous, but not wild [and] a kind of consciousness of all these different things going on at the same time. He has the ability to weave them. This 19th concerto is not played that often, but it has a lot of delights that deserve to be heard, and that’s why I proposed it. It’s full of Mozart being a little off his normal way of working and doing things experimentally.

Yes, I do play my own cadenzas. It’s fun and important, because there are some cases — a Beethoven concerto — where you can’t begin to compete with the ones he wrote. You can’t even imagine coming up with one, and a lot of Mozart’s could be one way or the other, but none have that quality of being indelible. You have the feeling he’s improvising and it could go any which way. You have to listen to the materials and you have to come up with something clever. What do these melodies do, what if you put it in the minor? It’s like getting under the hood of a car.

[Playing your own cadenzas] is more popular than it used to be, but some people feel they don’t want to trifle with a lot of Mozart’s concertos. Sometimes you have no choice, because he didn’t leave a cadenza. Forgive me for saying this, but sometimes the cadenzas aren’t that good — and if he were playing it, he’d improvise himself.

You’ve been working as artistic partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, including directing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 from the keyboard. What are the challenges in that?

I’ve worked with them five or six years now and I know them very well. After all this time, it doesn’t require very much of me. We’ve developed a rapport and I don’t need to wave my arms. I just set a tempo and if there’s something wrong, we rehearse and talk about it. It seems to really work. They’re responsive and know what to expect from me.

What makes for a good collaboration — working with Bell and Isserlis, for example?

We’ve got the Beethoven Triple Concerto upcoming, and inevitably, one of the best things in a good relationship is a little bit of tension. Not too much, but two different worldviews that can intersect. Often when you’re with an orchestra, an orchestra brings a kind of frame, a sense of a whole and the pianist brings a sense of whimsy, pulling against the orchestra. That can either be good or go off the rails.

With chamber music it’s a mutual respect, but there are also different things that everybody brings to the table. It’s very hard to know when you’re going to have a great chamber music experience. You need an alchemy with the piece; there’s also everyone’s mood. A lot of things can go into it. There’s a weird knowing when to take over and lead and when to give in to the other people. How to pass off from one thing to the other is also important and that’s dependent on the kind of music it is.

Some of my favorite things in the musical world, and even in literature have to do with one tradition meeting another. There’s a weird reference when [Ezra] Pound translated Chinese poetry: You have this ultra-European modernist looking at an ancient tradition and there’s this wonderful sense of two tectonic plates grating against each other, creating unexpected sparks and insights. That’s partly what makes a good collaboration for me.

Even in Mozart himself — there’s the tradition of his time — the music he’s used to hearing and the norms of his times. There’s his unique, slightly perverse, wild imagination, and there’s that collaboration where he has to conform to an extent and rebel, so when he’s composing, it’s a collaboration between him and a wider cultural world.

Would you consider yourself — or any concertizing musician at your level — somewhat obsessed, and if so, how do you relax?

I’m extremely obsessive. I got in trouble this morning when I started practicing Bach and couldn’t stop, so yes, I’m obsessive. Take the Goldberg Variations or Ligeti — you have to be obsessive or you won’t survive it. That’s the struggle, if the thing you’re obsessed with will destroy you, but a lot of it is knowing how to have a balanced existence. I also practice a lot of hours these days and when you come across a free day, you don’t exactly know what to do with yourself. There are lots of things that normal people do and I wonder, ‘How do you do that, to relax enough to feel you’re doing it right?’

I’ve got a place in the Catskills with goats — and no — I never tried goat yoga, but I do love hanging out with the goats. They love to be entertained and I love them entertaining me. I also love to cook, I love to hike and go out in nature. Normal people do those things, but it just takes a while for me to adjust because I’m an obsessive musician.

What’s happening with your memoir, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which grew out of a 2014 New Yorker article that Random House then commissioned?

I’m working on it, but it’s been a long time to figure out what the style should be. I’ve been practicing a lot in the last year, but I’m hoping to get a finished manuscript by this Christmas. Some of it is memoir, some of it is essayish, and it’s all bound together. I hope it’s funny and sad and many other things.

I had wanted to do essays about the fundamental elements of music that would somehow examine those qualities of music in ways that don’t usually get examined. I started sketching this out and they became very, very personal really fast, because music is so woven into my life. In the meantime, I lost both my parents and a close friend, plus the stress of running around and performing, that the writing became very, very intense — almost too intense to deal with at times. It’s been interesting, though, because you never know what writing a book is really going to be like.

Speaking of writing, you penned the libretto for the opera, The Classical Style, with the late Steven Stucky, which premiered as part of the Ojai Festival in 2014, when you were also the director. Do you have an interest in writing any other librettos?

I was interested for a long time in doing some revisions on Classical Style, but since Steven passed away [in 2016], it was a big blow to me and is hard to get over. People in Aspen would like to do it again and there’s some interest in making that happen. Some of the things in it were the mistakes of a rookie librettist and I would love to revisit them, but it’s hard to do. I haven’t thought of another opera libretto particularly, though I had wanted to do something about classical music history and have a hopefully whimsical and profound trip through musical history.

As a wordsmith, you’re also a voracious reader, so what are you reading these days?

I went to someone’s wedding recently and this woman was getting after me to know what I’m reading and I told her it was Virgil’s The Georgics. It’s a poem about farming, about nature and harnessing it and working in concert with it. It’s incredibly beautiful and a great masterpiece of Western literature that I’ve been obsessing about.

I hate to sound pretentious, but I really love reading classical poetry. There’s something about the ways that they talk about things where often the simplest is the most obvious, with a kind of clarity and a pathos that’s very hard to capture in modern times. There’s an amazing sense of the sensual in relation to life and death.

And if that doesn’t sound too preposterous, Virgil talks about the signs of misfortune, the winds and sounds in the air and the behaviors of the animals. It’s an amazing, endless list that the gods signify when things are going wrong in nature. It’s a picture of the world and unearthly powers. I wish they would do a Netflix version — or maybe that should be my next opera.

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.