The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Jeremy Denk is named a MacArthur “genius.” Here is a sampler of his immense talent as displayed in concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at NPR, in his blog “Think Denk” and on his latest Nonesuch recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Ligeti.

September 28, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, classical pianist Jeremy Denk (below) received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week. The stipend is $625,000 to be paid over five years and to be used for whatever the recipient wants, no string attached.

Here is a link to the MacArthur Foundation announcement (curiously, yet another year has gone by without any recipients from the UW-Madison):

http://www.macfound.org

Jeremy Denk 1

Several observations and interpretations come to mind.

One is that Jeremy Denk, a trained chemist as well as pianist, has already performed in Madison – TWICE – at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Both programs were mammoth undertakings. I met and worked with Denk both times, especially the first, and he is a remarkably deserving artist who is honest, droll, articulate and original. I also very much like his philosophy that radical music should stay sounding radical, no matter how many years later.

The first recital featured J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on the first half with Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 on the second half. Whew!

While here for that concert, Denk, a master blogger as you can find in “Think Denk,” he gave a public master class for young pianists (below), a fascinating talk on pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music, and a panel on blogging. As you can tell, Denk is a terrifically gifted musician with many different achievements to his credit.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Then last season, Denk appeared again in recital, in Mills Hall, to a regrettably small audience, and he played Franz  Liszt and Bela Bartok, followed by J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It was nothing short of phenomenal and utterly convincing.

Both concerts were outstanding events.

And both events point to the wisdom of the Wisconsin Union Theater in finding and booking up-and-coming talent.

Not that Jeremy Denk is young.

At 43, Denk is a seasoned concert veteran and he has taken the time to make the music he plays his own. He is not fresh out of some competition win at 23 or 24, and still stretching to find his maturity and a personal point of view. He is writing a book for Alfred A. Knopf based, to be published this year, based on some articles (on making his first recording and on being a piano student under various teachers) that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine and on his blog “Think Denk.”

Denk is also a devout Francophile who loves Proust and Balzac as well as great food and drink. The Ear thinks that helps to explain the sheer beauty and sensuality as well as logic of his playing.

Jeremy Denk street 1 

If you have any qualms about the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series this year –which features violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below top) with the UW Symphony Orchestra under UW alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Miro String Quartet (below middle, in a photo by Jim Leisy) on Friday, Feb. 21; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Gene Pokorny with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 8; and pianist Inon Barnatan (below bottom) on Friday, April 18. The MacArthur’s high-profile recognition of Jeremy Denk is a good reminder to trust the WUD series, however unexpected its choices may seem.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater series:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2013-14.html

Rachel Barton Pine

Miro Quartet Jim Leisy

Inon Barnatan

Here is a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

And here are links to NPR, where Denk was an artist-in-residence  for a week and where you can hear both interviews and excerpts from his first Nonesuch recording of etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and excerpts from his CD and DVD of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (the famous opening Aria is at the bottom in a YouTube video) that will be released this coming week. (He also recorded a fabulous album of Turn-of-the-20th-Century French violin sonatas with Joshua Bell for Sony Classical.)

http://www.npr.org/event/music/155236091/in-practice-jeremy-denk

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/21/224429650/first-listen-jeremy-denk-j-s-bach-goldberg-variations

jeremy denk bach golbergs cd

Personally, The Ear hopes Jeremy Denk records a lot more repertoire, and soon, especially now that he is a house artist of the prestigious Nonesuch Records label, which gives the notoriously difficult-to-record piano  outstanding sonic engineering. Several requests come to mind: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, for which he is well-known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, which he is touring with right now; the six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, by Johannes Brahms; some shorter J.S. Bach preludes and fugues as well as various suites; some sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; and some works by Frederic Chopin, preferably the thorny and often underplayed mazurkas and the ballades that are so rich for fresh interpretation.

Did you hear Jeremy Denk perform in Madison?

Have you listened to his recordings?

What do you think of Denk’s playing and writings?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: To mark J.S. Bach’s 327th birthday, NPR spends a full week examining the “Goldberg” Variations from Handel to Hannibal Lecter. It is an astounding work of appreciation and analysis.

March 24, 2012
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A REMINDER ALERT: The UW Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform a FREE and UNTICKETED community concert to mark its centennial tonight at 8 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater. They will be joined by guest pianist Christopher Taylor and Juilliard Quartet violist Samuel Rhodes in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2 as well as Darius Milhaud’s Quartet No. 7, Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” and Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K. 516. The concert is preceded by a free lecture on the state of classical music today at 3 p.m. in the WUT New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini and then a pre-concert interview with Bolcom and Tommasini at 7 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, on Friday, I posted a review of Madison’s Bach Around the Clock 3, held last Saturday from noon to midnight by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Pres House. It featured many student, amateur and professional performers.

But National Public Radio has outdone me and really marked Bach’s birthday, which was actually on Wednesday.

All this past week has been devoted to the “Goldberg” Variations.

Once the massive work of theme-and-variations was an esoteric rarity. Now it is iconic – nothing less than Apple founder Steve Jobs’ favorite work by his favorite composer.

So NPR invited several very well known experts and performers to discuss and play the Goldbergs. They include famed musicologist and Bach biography Christoph Wolff of Harvard and Leipzig, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, and pianist-blogger Jeremy Denk (below), who made several major contributions, as well as a pianist-composer Lara Downes, who has composed and recorded “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldbergs.”

All is all, it is an incredibly comprehensive tutorial on this wonderful world. It examines the origins of the music. It asks whether the work is best heard on the harpsichord or modern piano. It explores pioneering performances of them by Wanda Landowska and Glenn Gould (below).

It is a great idea that was executed greatly. I think that Tom Huizenga and Anastasia Tsioulcas (below top and bottom, respectively), the hosts of NPR’s classical blog “Deceptive Cadence,” have outdone themselves and their now outstanding past record with the week-long series devoted to a single work. It deserves some kind of industry prize or recognition.

See what you think and let me know.

Here are various links:

To an amusing and clever quiz on the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/21/148743420/the-official-goldberg-variations-puzzler?ps=rs

To scholar Christoph Wolff (below) on the origins of the Goldbergs and the piano versus harpsichord debate:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/19/148913266/bachs-enduring-enigma-an-introduction-to-the-goldberg-variations?ps=rs

To pianist-composer Lara Downes (below) on her new, Wallace Stevens-inspired variations based on the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/20/149014876/lara-downes-new-viewpoints-on-old-variations?ps=rs

To pianist Jeremy Denk – one hopes he records them soon — and his thoughts on the origins and structure of the Goldbergs plus his songful and soulful playing of several variations and his take on other topics including Hannibal Lecter’s love of the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/22/149089528/bachs-goldberg-variations-infinite-worlds-out-of-eight-borrowed-notes?ps=rs

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/22/149148529/this-is-your-brain-on-the-goldberg-variations?ps=rs

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/16/148769794/why-i-hate-the-goldberg-variations

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/20/148988529/hannibal-lecters-guide-to-the-goldberg-variations?ps=rs

To famed pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (below) on Glenn Gould’s landmark performances of the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/23/148592274/leif-ove-andsnes-the-miracle-of-glenn-gould

And there is more on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog site about the Goldbergs, including a look at a great harpsichord plus many videos and photos to look at and many videos to listen to.

Which recording is your favorite version of the Goldberg Variations, and why?

Do you prefer the harpsichord or piano, and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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