Live in Studio 4A
Our showcase for artists invited to perform on the program and talk about their music
The PT 50
Our list of 50 essential classical CDs
Bruce Adolphe's "name that composer" piano quiz
Meet Jeremy Denk
PT Young Artist-in-Residence
A recipient of the 1998 Avery Fisher Career Grant -- a prize that's launched the careers of many famous performers -- pianist Jeremy Denk is this spring's PT Young Artist-in-Residence.
Denk is an acclaimed performer with recital credits from New York's Alice Tully Hall to Washington's Kennedy Center. A faculty member at Indiana University while still a doctoral candidate at The Juilliard School, he's also made numerous appearances at Marlboro, Aspen, Caramoor, and other renowned music festivals. Meet the newest member of our PT family in our Web-only Q & A and be sure catch Denk on PT this week from April 23-27.
Visit Denk's on-demand audio archive and listen to his week of live Studio 4A performances.
Q: Welcome to PT, Jeremy. Why don't you start by telling us about your family. Are your parents musicians?
Denk: My parents are music lovers but not musicians. They listen to a lot of NPR. When I was little they played a few classical records all the time; particularly I remember a "Greatest Hits" album with the "Hallelujah" Chorus, the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, Bach's "Air on the G String," and other things. There was also a lot of John Denver and Judy Collins and Neil Diamond in my early youth, I am slightly embarrassed to say ("Song Sung Blue," "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," "Send in the Clowns.") My dad failed his class in guitar at New Mexico State (he claims this is the only class he has ever failed). My brother loves music but not the same music that I love; he has gigged around in a band in Houston, but it is not his "day job."
Q: What about your childhood? Were you heavily focused on piano at all times?
Denk: Now, I try very hard not to live a well-rounded daily life. Seriously, though, for a long time I've been unable to imagine life without playing the piano; but I've always been strongly drawn to other things -- books, games, computers, gadgets, cooking, conversations, crazy friends. I could never be a practice-a-holic if I tried: I enjoy procrastinating too much. When I was in junior high and high school my parents had to get after me pretty hard from time to time to remember to practice amid all the other stuff I was doing. My most vivid memories of childhood involve trying not to clean my room. Other than that, I remember being told to practice. My earliest childhood memory is of a lobster bake.
Q: Did you have one Eureka moment when you knew you'd be a pianist?
Denk: I'm not sure I had one. Music being my "career" was kind of a side effect, something that happened along the way. Once I started playing the piano, I don't think I could have stopped.
Q: You've studied with a slew of important piano teachers. What has working with each meant to you?
Denk: I have to begin with Gyorgy Sebok, who taught at Indiana University for many years, and who passed away in November '99; I went to Bloomington in '90 to work with him. He set a very high standard for musicmaking, to say the least. He had an astonishing control of the physics of playing the piano, and thus played with almost supernatural ease; he united this physics with the emotional and spiritual aspects of music. It is too bad one cannot say this without sounding a little silly, or "new-age-ish," since it is perfectly true. I worked with him for five years, and they were a huge influence on me; he made me wonder about the music I was playing, and he made me think about different musical "languages" (those of Beethoven, Bartok, Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, Bach) and the ways of speaking those languages naturally and without distortion. He made me think about how the physical movements I was using had musical effects: the relation between movement and musical gesture. When he played, it was like the most beautiful dance.
Another huge influence on me has been Herbert Stessin, who teaches at The Juilliard School. He is a hilarious, wonderful man with a tremendous knowledge of piano-playing tricks and secrets, and an infallible nose for when phrases go awry, or when a sound is not right. Though using a very different approach from Mr. Sebok, he also helped me to focus my playing, to clean out bad habits and to find certain nuances of phrasing. I play for him relatively often; he always saves me from some folly or another.
I could go on and on about great teachers I have had. Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida, with whom I have spent several summers at Marlboro, have taught me incredibly much, both by the example of their playing and through occasional lessons and advice. Since I have played a lot of chamber music, I've had a lot of coaching from non-pianists -- Robert Mann, Miriam Fried, David Geringas, Janos Starker, Isaac Stern, Peter Wiley, Timothy Eddy, Don Weilerstein -- just to name a few. These lessons, mainly with string players, helped me to think of music beyond the keyboard.
All this is like a boring Oscar speech or something. It is impossible, in a blurb, to really talk meaningfully about the energy that passes between a student and a teacher. Let me just say, by way of balancing all these positive statements, that most of these teachers disagreed with each other wildly, and some were a real pain in the butt.
Q: Has anyone outside of music spurred along your drive to be a performer?
Denk: My advisor in the chemistry department at Oberlin told me, in my junior year, that I should devote myself to my music major; he probably feared I would blow up the lab if I became a research assistant in my senior year. Seriously, though, that was nice advice. My English teacher at Oberlin, David Walker, helped me to love a lot of novels and poems. That seems tangential, but isn't. That literary education, although it is hard to pinpoint exactly how, factors very definitely into my musical life. Sometimes I think of pieces like little novels, condensed into 10 intense minutes; or like poems, in 20 rhythmical seconds.
Q: Some say Julliard is pretty sterile and career-driven as far as conservatories go. What's your take on your school?
Denk: Since I have yet to defend my thesis at Juilliard, I won't say anything compromising for the time being. There is a mindset among the student body of every conservatory that enjoys maligning one's own institution. I don't think there is a single "Juilliard experience." A lot of people who go there are career-driven; but I don't remember being bothered by it. I had wonderful lessons there, and any place with great teachers is great. I am glad I went to Oberlin first.
Q: Do you believe musicians should be educated in the liberal arts as well or is a conservatory track the only true way to become a star?
Denk: What's a "star"? I think musicians should not primarily concentrate on becoming stars, although they may become them along the way. I like the liberal arts. I think it would be nice if more classical musicians had a broader cultural education. But who am I to say how musicians should be taught?
Q: Many young artists have to cope with entering competitions. What do you think about this rung on the music-career ladder?
Denk: I have had some good and bad experiences at competitions. I think that competition, by nature, is antithetical to music-making. People enjoy watching them, as people enjoy any spectacle which turns out a definite winner. It would be nice if people enjoyed more ambiguous, less goal-oriented musical experiences. All this is fairly obvious.
I tend to dislike elements of the musical world which remind me of sports. Sports are wonderful in their own way, but music should be different.
That said, I have practiced more diligently and carefully for certain competitions than at most other times in my life. That is a good thing. If something inspires you to work hard, then it can't be all bad.
Q: What do you think about digital technology as it relates to music? Do you think the availability of music and its new forms (MP3, RealAudio streams) are influencing the way new generations are hearing music? Can the medium influence the message?
Denk: The medium is the message. Form and content are inseparable. That's the short answer.
I think MP3's are great, I've started converting some of my favorite CD's into files on my hard drive so I can take around a portable jukebox. I look forward to making "mix CDs" for my friends of performances I think are just incredible. All this doesn't seem that revolutionary to me, just a new convenient way to have music around. I wish MP3 players were cheaper.
There is no question that recordings in general have had a huge influence on so-called classical music, and that this influence has been both good and bad. The digital distribution of music does not seem to me to further change the fundamental listening experience. I'm probably wrong about this.
Q: Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what's your favorite method?
Denk: I use my laptop these days. I spend so much time playing music that I don't really need a constant "soundtrack" to get me through subway rides or airplane trips, like so many people seem to. But last summer I had a great time driving to Maine with Verdi's Falstaff. The couple times I have driven from New York to Bloomington I have listened to Lolita on tape (read by Jeremy Irons). It lasts exactly 12 hours, the same as the trip.
Q: What are your top-ten CDs?
Denk: I find top tens kind of silly, of course, but they can be fun. I liked the way they were used in [the film] High Fidelity, as a sort of cross section of how one's feeling at a particular moment. That's what this top ten is, not an attempt to say what are the greatest or most perfect recordings of all time, but the ones I really love listening to these days.
1) Ignaz Friedman performing anything, particularly Chopin mazurkas and Mendelssohn Songs Without Words; 2) Karajan conducting Falstaff; 3) Gyorgy Sebok playing Bartok's "Roumanian Folk Melodies" and Liszt's Mephisto Waltz; 4) Sebok and Starker playing Mendelssohn's Variations Concertantes; 5) Richard Goode -- the late Beethoven Sonatas; 6) Schnabel -- Schubert Impromptus; 7) Fischer-Dieskau/Moore -- Winterreise from the 60's; 8) Edwin Fischer -- Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier; 9) Clara Haskil -- Mozart Concertos; 10) Jan DeGaetani/Gilbert Kalish playing Ives Songs (Nonesuch)
Q: Well, since you like the top-ten lists so much :), why not give us your top-ten favorite things to do away from the piano?
Denk: 1) Cooking/Eating; 2) Talking Nonsense; 3) Reading; 4) Desiring Gadgets; 5) Talking about Love Life (related to #2); 6) Drinking Coffee; 7) Writing; 8) Pestering Friends (also related to #2); 9) Bookstore Browsing; 10) Unmentionable (actually should be #1)
Q: And your favorite movies?
Denk: Again, this is kind of random: 1) You Can Count on Me: recent film, enjoyed it a lot. Ambiguous ending; much nicer than the usual idiotic wrap-up; 2) The Birds: multilayered film with ambiguous symbolism; 3) Crimes and Misdemeanors: dubious acting but amazing plot and beautiful juxtapositions. Nice use of Schubert; 4) Tampopo: Of course there would have to be a food movie (why are musicians so obsessed with food?). Love the use of Mahler. I'm a sucker for a movie that appropriately uses a piece of classical music to illuminate a dramatic situation; 5) Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael: 'cause I love Winona Ryder. Haven't seen it in a while, though, so may have changed my mind; 6) Andrei Rublev: I know there are only supposed to be five, but this is a great film.
Q: Ok. So we know you like films, but what about TV?
My relationship with TV is stormy, ranging from a strong desire to hurl it out the window to a deep dependency. TV is dumb. It is definitely not a worthwhile diversion. I have to admit, however, that sometimes I love watching those stupid WB shows: "Felicity," "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I don't know what it is, must be subliminal messages in those things. The pain of watching them is almost addictive. Do you think Ben is really good for Felicity?
Q: We'll keep that rhetorical. What's your style like? What can people find you wearing on a Saturday afternoon?
Denk: Probably jeans and sneakers. My clothes tend to live much of their lives crumpled on my bedroom floor. My closet is a symbol of the disordered state of my unconscious mind.
Q: You live in New York City. Do you go out a lot? Where are your favorite NYC destinations (other than concert halls)?
Denk: I go out sometimes, not as much as I should. I am a little fixated on food, so restaurants tend to be my favorite NY destinations. There are also these unique-to-NY shops: ABC Carpet & Home (too expensive for me to buy anything, but cool to wander through); The Strand (insanely large used-book store); and of course Zabar's (Upper West Side food emporium with very pushy customers). Cheese shops are very important to me, as a matter of principle.
But the best NY destination is just any old street corner, the crazy collection of people one can run into. I have overheard more insane and hilarious cell phone calls than I could count; I'm thinking of collecting a book's worth. Certain neighborhoods are fun in and of themselves too, like the East Village, West West Village, and so on.
Q: Can you tell us something about the music you'll play on PT?
Denk: Well, the solo segments of the week are still up for debate. But I'm going to play for sure the Dvorak Quintet and Mozart's Piano Concerto K. 415 with the Shanghai Quartet. The Dvorak is an old friend to me, and I love playing it. I used to insist that if an ensemble couldn't play that piece decently without rehearsal, then they shouldn't play it at all. I've softened my position somewhat since then, but there is something so natural about this piece; it should flow out, in a sense, AS IF it hadn't been rehearsed. I'm probably going to play some other Czech romantic music--short dances of Smetana--on the same hour. The Smetana dances are wild, romantic, improvisatory; i.e. they carry some of the same flavor as the Dvorak. There's a lot of major/minor shifting in this music, deriving from and evoking the folk style.
The Mozart Concerto is a pure C major delight; much of it is "typical Mozart," perfectly proportioned and Apollonian; but then it has lots of youthful quirks, unusual twists, humorous unexpected elements. The last movement is the most bizarre. It begins with a very funny, rhythmically shifty rondo theme in the piano. The orchestra picks it up, it seems we are on our way, and everything is normal; but then a sudden cadence brings us to a halt, and the piano begins a minor key Adagio--you couldn't have a more extreme change of character. You could call it a schizophrenic rondo. The end of the movement is the best part. Mozart doesn't conclude with a big fanfare or cadence. Instead, he breaks up the theme into fragments, and allows them to diminuendo, to disappear. The piece does not end, it vanishes: gone before you know it, with a wink and a smile. Mozart himself arranged the Concerto for piano and string quartet.
I'm also going to be playing the Faure Sonata with a wonderful violinist, Tim Fain. He lives coincidentally in my building in New York. This brings the French element into the week. The piano introduction to this piece is one my favorite moments at the keyboard. This piece is full of so many luscious modulations, it's like eating a fine French meal.
Among the solo pieces I'll be playing will probably be some Schubert Impromptus. Schubert is my (dare I say it?) favorite composer, and these works are late, intimate masterpieces. Also there will be a Bach Toccata, as I have been thinking about and playing Bach a lot lately. The D major Toccata is a wild, virtuosic piece, with a lot of sudden modulations and extraordinary shifts of character.
I have put together a kind of "ragtime sandwich," and that will appear at some point during the week. This is a set with classic American rags on the outside, and subsequent homages to the rag--by Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bolcom--on the inside. Each composer focuses on a different element of the rag, and it is interesting to hear all the possibilities of the genre. Stravinsky and Hindemith tend to concentrate on the virtuosic and rhythmic elements of the rag, distorting them for a somewhat comic effect; while Bolcom wrings out the rag's nostalgia and sentiment, giving a tender tribute.
Finally, I will likely play Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 11, a wonderfully romantic long set of short pieces.
Q: A lot of radio lovers think it is the last and most imaginative medium. Do you agree?
Denk: I love radio. Of course I have to say that. I don't think it is the last imaginative medium. There are imaginative films out there, and sometimes even an imaginative television show (though not too often). But I think without NPR, classical music in America would be in sorry shape.
Q: Thanks for talking with us, Jeremy. We look foward to the concerts.
Denk: My pleasure.
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