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Jeremy Denk: Not your daily dose of classical

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Dennis CallahanPianist Jeremy Denk performs Thursday, with violinist Joshua Bell, at Harris Hall, in the opening concert of the Aspen Music Festival's Winter Music series.
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ASPEN ” On the official website for Richard Goode, the pianist is hailed for his “emotional power, depth and expressiveness.” When fellow pianist Jeremy Denk saw Goode perform a Debussy piece, however, he was most taken by another quality in Goode’s playing: a sense of humor.

“It was truly hilarious,” was Denk’s assessment. But Denk’s view wasn’t shared by all ” or even any of the others in the audience.

“Everyone was raptly serious. And that was a shame. Often I’ll be listening to a concert and I’ll be almost losing it.”



To Denk, the lack of humor ” or better, the overly reverential tone that seems built into the concert experience ” is no laughing matter. Audiences trained to treat all classical music as serious and intellectual are missing out on other experiences composers are trying to communicate.

“No one was funnier than Beethoven when he chose to be funny,” said Denk, who lists Schubert, Schumann and especially Ives among the composers who sought to elicit something other than overbearing respect from their audiences.




“Imagination, quirky, some revolutionary thing to say about how life is seen, how life is lived,” he said, ticking off the qualities he admired in their music. “Bach is much quirkier to my mind than he receives credit for.”

Denk appears Thursday with frequent duo partner, violinist Joshua Bell, in the opening concert of the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music series. Before concertgoers arrive ready to laugh, however, Denk points out that the program ” sonatas by Janacek, Brahms and Franck, plus a solo violin piece by Ysaÿe and an intermission ” “is not very funny. It’s intense and emotional.”

Which is fine by Denk; he doesn’t aim to be Henny Youngman, punctuating one-liners with musical shtick.

“You’re always adapting your personality to the piece that you’re playing,” he said from his home in the “musician’s ghetto” of Manhattan’s Upper West Side (“the world’s most expensive ghetto,” quips Denk). “I look to communicate some of the humor, which is in no way making the music less profound, but more. Telling people to be less serious about the music is a way of telling them to be more serious, if you know what I mean.”

Despite the humor-free program, Denk is doing his share to lighten up the classical music realm. He keeps a blog, think denk (jeremydenk.net/blog), on which he delivers observations on music and the musician’s life, plus thoughts on such random topics as toothpaste, pulled pork and Sarah Palin’s passion for Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata ” all with a comic slant, of course. Among his recent entries are his thoughts on the “broccolization” of classical music.

“There’s a common cultural perception that classical music is something that’s good for you, like a vitamin,” said the 38-year-old, a product of New Mexico (not unlike the cholla cactus) and a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant (thus distinguishing himself from the musically disinclined cholla). “And that depresses me. Not that I have anything against vitamins.

“I live with this music every day and it’s hard for me to separate it from everyday life. It’s common to see it as something you do to be well-behaved or properly cultured. But the more you live with the music, the more you see how it’s not good for you. It’s filled with all the neuroses and those qualities.”

Denk’s off-kilter take on music hasn’t prevented him from being taken seriously in the concert hall. He has appeared as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony, premiered works by Ned Rorem, Leon Kirchner and Edgar Meyer. Denk, who attended the Aspen Music School in 1989, returns here this summer, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Aspen Chamber Symphony and conductor Michael Stern in the opening weekend of the Music Festival.

Denk is also well-known for his partnership with Bell. The two met in 2004 at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina; the following year they began performing as a duo and have spent a month each year since appearing as a duo.

Denk takes his writing seriously ” enough so that he says his blog, which dates back to 2005, has influenced his piano playing. He is entertaining a proposal to expand his blogging into a more formal project. It’s an open question whether it will be filed under comedy or in the music section.

“A book on how I got here,” he said. “A semi-anti-autobiography, interspersed with thoughts on my favorite musical pieces.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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