Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
We had classical records at home. I loved to listen to them and dance around to them – it was a crucial growing up time for me, like a refuge And there was an old broken down spinet in the house and I loved to play on it. I had favourite albums growing up – the Saint-Saens organ concerto, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, oh and the Verdi love duet, that was one of my favourites, the one with Pavarotti. My parents were not musicians, though my father played the guitar, but they were music lovers.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
György Sebők, the great Hungarian guru of the piano, whom I encountered at my last year at Oberlin Conservatory, sort of randomly when he gave a recital and a masterclass. He had a totally different value system and way of thinking about music. There were so many things about Sebők that were crucial to me, but one of them was this urge to find a kind of balletic parallel to phrases, to find a way to move at the piano that exactly mirrors the essence of the phrase. It was very important to him, as a Hungarian pianist, that notes that are up should be “up”, and notes that are down should be “down”, if that makes sense….there was a way that he used to demonstrate this. There was a naturalness and a simplicity that he was after that I really adored. He had a beautiful way with Mozart which really opened up the music up for me. I knew that I always loved Mozart but I didn’t really know why: he used to unpack the simplest phrases of Mozart, to find a tremendous sense of play, a sense of constant exchange, little surprises that had to be dealt with one way or another or reacted to. I could talk about Sebők for hours!
There was another teacher from that period, who was almost the opposite to Sebők. He was a ‘cello professor at Oberlin and one of things that he talked about was “inhabiting” the music, almost like method acting in theatre. He coached a friend of mine and I on the slow movement of Beethoven E-flat major ‘cello sonata. We loved to argue, as many young musicians do, and he made us meditate on separate things: he made my friend meditate on “filling out” each note right to the end. He made me think about the saddest thing I could imagine, which for me was the idea of not playing the piano. He had an incredible emotional investment in every moment of the music.
These two approaches were quite different, one was incredibly European, the other totally American, but they worked because they were both after the same things
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Trying to do too much! And balancing writing and playing. I would say the greatest challenge is just to play well night after night and to practice well. And having a life on top of all of that!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
There is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov, when asked what was his favourite novel, he replied “the one I’m about to write”, which I think is the best answer to this question! When I did the Ligeti Etudes it was a very charged moment in my life, it was music I really believed in, and it was fun to work on that music that hadn’t been that much recorded at that time.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I do a lot of Bach, a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, some Schumann. And I’ve been doing with a great deal of pleasure, especially for me, a lot of Renaissance keyboard music. And through Sebők I am a big Bartok person. And Ligeti and Ives too
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Each project comes from a kind of notion, for example with the music history programme, I felt we all know the story of Western classical music from classes at school, although in the classical world the focus tends to be between 1650 and 1950 and of course there are many hundreds of years that are shunted off to the side. And the story is longer than that and has many beautiful elements. To my mind it is like an epic story or an epic poem, and I felt it would be useful, as in a time lapse photo, to watch it go by and feel the pull of time and see all the new ways in which each new gain or vision of music is also a loss – an incredible cycle of destruction and creation. I tried to find a way to do it in an evening’s span. I was very constrained – in the selection of pieces and how long each piece should be, so it was kind of a mental exercise.
When I did Goldbergs Variations and Ligeti Etudes that was interesting – Ligeti is all about disorder and chaos, and a new mathematical order to the world, whereas Bach is the opposite: at the end of the Variations it is all about order and clarity
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
This is a rather complicated thing to say but the times when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
For pianists make sure that the left hand is not subservient to the right, that the harmonies get their due. One of the things that bothers me most about young musicians today is the sense of the metronome working behind everything with no sense of rubato. Without it the music just begins to sound like a diagram. But when you say rubato they always think you mean slowing down, but of course it also means speeding up.
Jeremy Denk begins an Artist Residency at Milton Court Concert Hall on October 12th. For further information and to book tickets please visit the Barbican’s website
Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists. Winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, Denk was also recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Denk returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and has recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as on tour with Academy St. Martin in the Fields.
In 16-17, Denk toured extensively throughout the US, including returning to the National Symphony led by Sir Mark Elder, and performing with the St. Louis, Vancouver, and Milwaukee Symphonies. He also toured the UK in recital, including appearances in Perth, Southampton, the Bath Festival, and a return to Wigmore Hall. He returns to the BBC Proms this Summer playing Bartok 2 with the BBC Symphony. He has also recently appeared with the Britten Sinfonia, with whom he will perform at the Barbican next season–where he is artist-in-residence at Milton Court. Denk also recently made his debut at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie in Cologne, and Klavier-Festival Ruhr, and continues to appear extensively on tour in recital throughout the US, including, recently, Chicago, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Miami, Philadelphia, and at New York’s Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in a special program that included a journey through seven centuries of Western music. Next season, Denk returns to the San Francisco Symphony with Tilson Thomas, and Carnegie Hall with Orchestra St. Luke’s, and continues as Artistic Partner of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with multiple performances throughout the season, and a new piano concerto written for him by Hannah Lash. He also makes his debut on tour in Asia, including recitals in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul. Future projects include re-uniting with Academy St. Martin in the Fields for a tour of the US.
Denk’s upcoming releases from Nonesuch Records include The Classical Style, with music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the complete Ives violins sonatas with Stefan Jackiw. He also joins his long-time musical partners, Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis in a recording of Brahms’ Trio in B-major. His previous disc of the Goldberg Variations reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Chart.
In 2014 Denk served as Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, for which, besides performing and curating, he wrote the libretto for a comic opera. The opera was later presented by Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Festival. Denk is known for his original and insightful writing on music, which Alex Ross praises for its “arresting sensitivity and wit.” The pianist’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, The Guardian, and on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. One of his New Yorker contributions, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” forms the basis of a book for future publication by Random House in the US, and Macmillan in the UK. Recounting his experiences of touring, performing, and practicing, his blog, Think Denk, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives.
In 2012, Denk made his Nonesuch debut with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111, and Ligeti’s Études. The album was named one of the best of 2012 by the New Yorker, NPR, and the Washington Post, and Denk’s account of the Beethoven sonata was selected by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best available version recorded on modern piano. Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas featured in many “best of the year” lists.
Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin College, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School. He lives in New York City, and his web site and blog are at jeremydenk.net.