INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR


The 2014 Honorees

By Stuart Isacoff

He describes his career as “a slow brew.” His burgeoning recital schedule, a long-term collaboration with violinist Joshua Bell, a Nonesuch recording contract, a popular blog called “Think Denk,” and a Random House book commission are the very model of a multiple talent.

Pianists come in many varieties. There are firebreathing virtuosos and icy clinicians; brilliant eccentrics and buttoned-up bean counters; celebrities who shine and faceless collaborators who remain in the shadows. Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year, Jeremy Denk, doesn’t fit into any such box.

Ask the major talents he has worked with and they’ll tell you that Denk is an original—a player with both insight and imagination who nevertheless places his formidable technique, intelligence, and musicality in service to the score. He consistently excites audiences, yet shows little interest in calling attention to himself. It’s little wonder that others seek him out as a musical partner.

“Jeremy is a one-of-a-kind personality,” says composer and conductor John Adams. “He plays the piano with a technical command that is so secure you hardly notice the fact that it’s some fiendish knuckle-buster by Ligeti, or Ives or the ‘Hammerklavier’ that he’s tossing off. I’d call him ‘a thinking person’s pianist,’ except that doesn’t do justice to him either. He’s an artist with a deep soul, thoughtful, probing, alternately sublime and sassy. He can articulate his thoughts in words both written and spoken, something that places him in rare company with Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein. But he’s conspicuously lacking in ego. When we recently did the Ravel G Major Concerto in Washington, the audience one night broke out into spontaneous applause after the slow movement. The slow movement! That’s just one measure of his very special artistry.”

The “thinking person’s pianist” is actually an apt description for this multiple talent who manages to make most over-achievers look lazy by comparison. Along with the normal touring commitments of a professional pianist, he finds time to produce splendid recordings, such as his 2012 debut on Nonesuch Records featuring Beethoven’s final piano sonata and Ligeti Etudes—named one of the best discs of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post—and his take on Ives’s two Piano Sonatas, also lavishly praised. His interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was released by Nonesuch in September on both CD and DVD.

Then there are his writings—witty, provocative, often enchanting—found most often in The New Yorker and on his blog, Think Denk (jeremydenk.net/blog). (A book for Random House is also in the works.) And recently, he became engaged in writing the libretto for an unlikely opera to debut at the Ojai Music Festival next June, based on Charles Rosen’s book, The Classical Style, with music by Steven Stucky. (He will also serve this season as that festival’s music director.) An opera based on a musicology textbook? It began with a dream, he explains, in which “principles of music—harmony, structure—and the big out of classes to take,” he admits. When it came time to choose a college, he wanted to keep his options open. “I was still 15,” he explains. “I did chemistry and piano at Oberlin simultaneously. And I also took as many English classes as I could squeeze in. I was nuts about a favorite English professor, and took Modern British Novel and Modern British Poetry.” He was, in the end, better suited to literature than to science. “As it turned out, I was terrible in chemistry lab. I caught my sweater on fire, and was always still cleaning up when others were finished.”

When he met his teacher, pianist György Sebok at Indiana University, the intricacy of thought he encountered seemed to synthesize everything he had been studying—as if the certainty of science and the sophistication of literature had combined in his approach to music. “He was obsessed with  'truthfulness’ and integrity of expression,”  says Denk, “and with subtle nuances of color and timing in exploring how a Mozart phrase would live or die. He searched for the language and syntax of each composer. It changed my point of view about why you play, and why some things are beautiful. It was like having my own personal Yoda.” He also worked with Herbert Stessin at Juilliard, and honed his chamber skills at the Marlboro Music Festival. His career—“a slow brew,” he says—didn’t begin to flourish until he was 29 or 30. But slow and steady is certainly winning the race. He has worked for years in collaboration with violinist Joshua Bell, who finds in Denk “someone who takes you to the next level—no matter how much you’ve rehearsed and planned, it’s always even a step better in concert.” And over the last few seasons several important conductors have become supporters. Michael Tilson Thomas, for one, cherishes “his intellect, his sense of humor, and his broad outlook on life.”

That broadness will surely continue to be a Denk trademark as he continues to merge the winding paths of his journey, an exploration in which each discipline informs the others. Indeed, it is this wide range of writing and performing interests that won him a generous MacArthur Fellowship late in 2013. “Writing freed me in a way that even performing didn’t,” he confesses. “I love beautiful combinations of words. In Nabokov, the electricity passing between the words is like what happens in music. Bach is often like that. Schumann is like that.” It’s a very Denk ideal—and the reason we keep listening. •

Stuart Isacoff ’s latest book is A Natural History of the Piano (Knopf ).

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