The list of attributes that make Jeremy Denk compelling are several résumés long.
There's his insightful writing about his experience with music in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic and on his blog, Think Denk. There's his monstrous virtuosity and his eagerness to tackle thornier parts of the classical piano repertory. And there are his numerous accolades—a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, the 2014 Avery Fisher Prize and Musical America's 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year award, to hit only the recent highlights.
But the most important aspect might be the revelatory ways he interprets and binds complicated pieces of seemingly unconnected music. He finds unexpected links between and within works, bringing out layers of meaning that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. And once he finds those threads, he pounces on them in his performances.
For the centerpiece of his upcoming concert at Duke University, Denk will deliver a set of long, intertwining pieces by Franz Schubert and Leoš Janácek, composers whose music may not seem immediately connected. Schubert died of syphilis at age 31 in 1828. His music bursts with flowing lines and unusual harmonic twists, full of longing, darkness and regret. He employs a vocabulary of youthful madness and digression. Janácek, on the other hand, didn't find his compositional voice until he was nearly 50 years old, hitting his stride right around the turn of the 20th century. There is a darkness in his music, yes, but it stems from a more studied, experienced perspective. His sense of melody is more idiosyncratic than Schubert's, too, his harmonic language more complex.
Still, Denk will attempt to make them speak to each other across a distance of decades. We spoke to him about how exactly he intends to do that.
INDY: The last time you visited the area, you did a concert of Bach and Ligeti. That pairing makes a lot of sense, as those two seem very contrapuntally connected. This time, though, the pieces are less obviously linked—a little more diverse and idiosyncratic, too. What's the seam?
JEREMY DENK: There is a bit of a theme here. I constructed this whole mixtape of Janácek and Schubert about a certain kind of Eastern European anxiety and ambivalence—the line between major and minor, between joy and sadness, a complicated place. And as a kind of opposition to that, I put in "Carnaval," which is Schumann at his most manically happy. If Janácek and Schubert are about regrets, then the Schumann is no regrets, no second thoughts. I love the idea of those two big sets played against each other. I chose the Haydn, which is all sun and laughter, and the Mozart, which is this ridiculously doleful and tragic work. You could say I tried to construct a symmetry of light and dark.
Is the idea of the mixtape how you listen to these pieces? Or is that just your way of getting prepared for this particular concert?
One of the things that's problematic about classical music is that sense of musty history. It's important to try to turn that problem into a virtue. What we have is this vast historical sweep, centuries of music. It is often really interesting to push fast forward or rewind in that large story and have a conversation across a century. It's sometimes like it's the same composer or the same idea being revisited a century later. It's scary how indistinguishable the Janácek and the Schubert really are, and that's because they're dealing with the same problems that music can deal with and the same beautiful boundaries. The mixtape is about engaging with the conversation of history and trying to present music that might seem static as part of this huge journey of time, of human thinking, evolving.
How does the music itself enable that flow, that sweep?
I put the set together carefully. It starts with the Janácek piece in E-flat major that has this wonderful lingering on a C-flat. I immediately go to a Schubert waltz in E-flat minor that does exactly the same thing—the same C-flat, the same pivots—but you hear it quite differently. The set is constructed in that way. Sometimes, it's a very overt similarity, like a key, sometimes it's a motive. I try to make a little stream of consciousness between the various ideas. Sometimes it's supposed to be a very seamless transition, sometimes a very shocking one. It's kind of like a little act of composition that I'm doing.
That idea of curation as composition, do you think that's something that performers should strive for more?
It's certainly part of the modern way of dealing with art. It's maybe not for everyone, but I like concerts to be a little bit of a happening and to have some sense of challenge in them, something that you have to puzzle out.
Coming back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries from having done pieces earlier and later, like Bach and Ligeti respectively, does it change the way you approach Mozart or Schubert?
Definitely, because Mozart and Beethoven grappled with Bach's greatness. And their late music, some of the music that we love the most, is all about dealing with Bach's heritage. Any playing of Bach is going to impact your playing of the next generation of German composers. One of the goals of playing Ligeti and Beethoven together—or Ligeti and Bach, and then Ives and Beethoven—is to show that Beethoven or Bach are more insane than Ligeti or Ives. That sense of deep strangeness of music that we think we know so well is very important.
Does writing about music, and thinking about verbalizing your experience of playing, change the way you play it?
Certainly it does. One thing that writing about music does is act as a kind of therapy for all the problems and anxieties of being a pianist. You talk through the things. It's a way for me to engage with the music without my bones or muscles or whatever, to engage with what does music mean to me and also often to draw a connection between music of what seems to be the past and the anxieties of the present, pop culture and politics. Sometimes I try to draw connections between everyday life and the seemingly arcane world of Beethoven. I hope that it works to bring those two things together—even for me, to make sense for me. My happiest moment, which is very difficult, is when I do manage to get something on paper that seems to say something relatively true about my experience of the music itself.
Having written it down, can it reveal something in the notes that you might not have found through the work of your muscles?
It's a different way of using your brain, and a way of getting away from the piano, like mental practice. Then the piano becomes a way to bring you down from the clouds and deal with the notes again.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Keyboard shortcuts."