The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Jeremy Denk teaches, lectures and performs – all superbly – and proves he is the complete professional

April 25, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Pianist Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) was in Madison last week.

Big time.

On Wednesday and Thursday, he tirelessly gave a variety of events.

First up was a master class on the stage of the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) with middle school and high school students, sponsored by the Madison Area Piano Teachers Association.

Then came a lecture on pedaling in Chopin at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where faculty and graduate student as well as the public came to hear him.

That same afternoon the Union held a public panel discussion of blogging with the The Ear and Denk, whose own blog, “Think Denk,” is as interesting as it is highly regarded.

The next day came a live interview, with a lot of humor, on Wisconsin Public Radio; and that night, finally, a lamentably small house heard Denk in his stupendously successful recital of Ives and Bach at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

So are those reasons why I consider Denk a complete professional? Yes, but there is an even simpler reason: The night before his recital, Denk’s laptop computer — filled with his images and notes for his lectures, his blog and his other unbacked-up writing projects — was stolen from backstage at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Now I myself am the kind of person – and I suspect I am not alone – who gets very upset, worked up and out of sorts from misplacing even a pencil or pen or pair of eyeglasses – let alone having my laptop stolen.

Yet despite being upset,  Denk apparently got a good night’s sleep and when he came out the following evening to play his mammoth and muscular program of Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 1 and J.S. Bach’s complete “Goldberg” Variations, he pulled himself together and showed no signs of playing on a sub-part or distracted level.

Indeed, his performance was for me one of the highlights of the whole season. The work by Ives (below), a complex piece that he introduced, was nothing short of revelatory; and the Bach was impressive, especially for how he transcribed this epic Baroque work for harpsichord to the modern grand piano with clear articulation, wonderful voicing and a great singing line. And he even topped it off with an encore he reportedly hadn’t planned on – the transcendently beautiful “The Alcotts” movement from Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord.”

Only a professional could move beyond such personal concerns and focus himself enough to pull that off.

But of course there were many ways to admire Denk’s professionalism as it revealed itself.

His enthusiasm and patience with four local piano students (below) were boundless. (They were seventh-grader Roy Weng (front) playing Mozart; 11th-grader Kevin Chen (back row) playing Schumann; eighth-grader Antonia Rolfing (middle row, left) playing Debussy; and 11th grader Kate Stein (back row, left) playing Grieg – all before an audience of about 25.)

Always animated and enthusiastic with his praise, he gave them tips on hand position, finger motion, body posture, scores to use, tempi to adopt and attitudes to have. (He is big on smiling and having fun and taking pleasure from playing the piano.) And in every case, you could hear the difference in the students’ playing within minutes. It was not easy for them to subject themselves to such criticism for a half-hour at a time, but they all rose to occasion.

Later that afternoon, over in Morphy Hall, Denk discussed how Chopin’s frequently ignored pedal markings are important indicators of harmonic structure and melodic phrasing, of intended sound mixes.

But his lecture was anything but esoteric as he projected images of Chopin scores and manuscripts, including the Ballade No. 3, on a screen (below).

Then he read various texts from his laptop computer and played section on the piano to illustrate his points. He was nothing short of absorbing and convincing.

He concluded that day by offering a blog workshop tips on how he as a professional develops themes – and ignore certain celebrity or scandalous behind-the-scenes information – to write his highly acclaimed blog “Think Denk.” which can be found at his home page:

He also admitted that his purpose as a professional performer is different from, say, a critic’s or from that of a general member of the public who writes a blog. He said he aims to demystify the music and the world of professional music-makers, and he wants to discuss complex musical subjects in-depth.

He also said he doesn’t particularly care about reactions or comments. But the more he spoke, the more he made you want to read his blog, which he said he often ignores when he busy because each posting takes him 20-25 hours to write.

As if he isn’t busy enough practicing, performing and playing the piano. That is a serious blogger and an interesting person (not for nothing did he major in both piano performance and chemistry at Oberlin).

I’ll add just to things.

First, I want to thank the Wisconsin Union Theater, whose staff and students put together the wonderful package.

Second, this university city needs more such complete packages that combine education, scholarship and performance. I just hope the theft of his laptop won’t keep the affable, accessible and prodigiously gifted Denk from returning to Madison, maybe even to play a concerto with the UW Symphony Orchestra. (He has been here once before when he accompanied violinist Joshua Bell several years ago.) I have no doubt he has a lot more music and thoughts to share.

And I sure hope he gets his laptop back.

If you heard Denk’s master class, Chopin lecture, blogging panel or recital, what did you think?

Would you like him to return to Madison?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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