Sunday, October 21, 2007

Denk thinks, about what to say and what to eat

Fittingly for an artist almost as well-known for writing as for music-making, Jeremy Denk was multi-tasking when we connected. While he was being interviewed by phone in Miami Beach, the concert pianist and author of the music blog "Think Denk" was scanning a restaurant menu and ordering a salad, fueling up for a performance of Beethoven’s "Emperor" Concerto with Ars Flores, a South Florida orchestra of professionals and advanced students.

"This was supposed to be my semi-secret chance for get Beethoven 5 back under my fingers," Denk said. "But now it turns out MTT is coming to the concert." MTT is Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducts Florida’s New World Symphony as well as the San Francisco Symphony, with whom the pianist performed earlier this month in Beethoven’s First Concerto.

"This is turning into a big Beethoven month for me," but not by some long-made plan. Denk was engaged as a substitute for an indisposed Itzhak Perlman in San Francisco, and was booked in place of Stephen Prutsman to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in the Richmond Symphony’s 50th anniversary gala.

The concert, Oct. 26 at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center, is a re-creation of the symphony’s 1957 debut program. Denk fills the role then played by Mieczyslaw Horszowski. ("I had no idea I was portraying Horszowski," he e-mailed. "I think I need to go practice!")

Like any capable artist following a familiar script, "I’m always looking for ways to make it fresh," Denk said. "But that’s not something I have to worry about too much. . . . Being free and improvisatory, alert to what’s happening in the next moment, is part of my personality."

He believes he naturally resists routine: "I’m not usually enmeshed in the way a piece is usually done."

This is a running theme in Denk’s blogging. One of his earliest posts, from March 2005, reads in part: "[H]ow IDIOTIC the ‘old ways’ of playing something seem (and by old I mean six months ago): how incredibly self-critical you become. And the idiocy is usually inattention . . . and so I force myself, bit by bit, to pay attention. This is painstaking work, measure by measure, repetitive (sometimes to no apparent result) – trying to truly ‘pay attention.’ It is weird to repeat paying attention; repetition tends to give way to tedium, and inattention. Practicing is straining towards the opposite of this natural tendency. But then, invariably, you run across another problem: mental attention translates inaccurately into muscular tension (this movement from intangible to tangible runs through piano playing, in every direction: printed score to evanescent sound, for example). Your perception of attention is misplaced; you confuse a hunched muscle for a sparking neuron."

Denk has not (so far) written professionally. He flirted with adding English to music and chemistry majors while he was a student at Oberlin College and its conservatory. His best tutelage in the written word, he recalls, came from the longtime Oberlin English professor David Walker, who was "very exacting about language and thought."

The pianist began blogging literally in mid-conversation. "One day a friend was on the phone with me, and said, ‘Why not write a blog?’ And as we continued to talk, I got online and set it up." (The current "Think Denk" is second-generation, integrated into a site with biography, schedule, audio samples, reviews, etc.)

Writing about music, he said, "I often make certain things about the music clear to myself . . . [make] connections I may not have made" while studying the score or rehearsing. Blogging does not supplant, or even supplement, normal practice, but is a channel for "free association" between the music he is addressing and the world he inhabits.

"There’s an unconscious quality" to many of his posts, thinks Denk.

More of his thoughts can be found at:

The Richmond Symphony's 50th anniversary re-creation of its 1957 debut concert begins at 8 p.m. Oct. 26 in Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond. Tickets: $50-$65. Details: (804) 788-1212,