Classical Music

Denk holds forth in classic style, on stage and off

For Jeremy Denk, recent months have brought a fellowship, festival, book project, and opera.
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
For Jeremy Denk, recent months have brought a fellowship, festival, book project, and opera.

“I was just overworked before; now I’m ridiculously overworked.”

That’s pianist Jeremy Denk, describing his life since winning a MacArthur Fellowship in September. Since then, he’s worked on a book project that grew out of his brilliantly imaginative blog entries and articles for The New Yorker. And he’s programmed the recent California-based Ojai Music Festival, which included Uri Caine’s rethinking of Mahler and Timo Andres’s “re-composition” of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto, in addition to Denk himself playing.

But the biggest project to occupy him lately has been “The Classical Style,” an opera based on the landmark musicology book by Charles Rosen, which premiered at Ojai. In it, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven grouse about their fates; harmonic triads meet in a bar; and a musicologist’s disquisition robs Don Giovanni of his mojo. It works improbably well, thanks to the intertwining of Denk’s witty libretto and Steven Stucky’s clever pastiche of Classical-era music.


Denk will resume his performing life with a Rockport Chamber Music Festival recital of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and Ives’s “Concord” Sonata. (He will repeat the program Aug. 13 at Tanglewood.) He spoke to the Globe from Berkeley, where he was overseeing the Ojai North branch of the festival and awaiting another performance of “The Classical Style.”

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Q. How much has the MacArthur changed your life, and for better or for worse?

A. You know, it’s given me some, you might call it confidence. It’s also given me a sense of responsibility, and sometimes responsibility comes with a sense of stress. It’s been such an insane pileup of things. But I’m trying to just keep doing what I’m doing. Luckily, a lot of things that I’ve been doing have been very fun and bizarre, very much the kind of things I love, and I seem to have been rewarded for them in some way or another. Which is not always the case.

Q. The music directorship of the Ojai festival entailed a different level of responsibility. Was that intimidating? Liberating?

A. A little bit of both. Once we had the opera concept in place, it wasn’t that hard to think of other things that were doing what the opera did in different ways. I’d known Uri’s album on Mahler, which I always thought was very inspired. I’d known Timo’s rethinking of the Mozart, which is very thoughtful. That part mostly wasn’t difficult; it was the practicalities, assembling all the people and making it something that can work and can be rehearsed and happen. And all that was very overwhelming, and I learned a lot about life, I must tell you, and about the practicalities of concerts. And I had to write the libretto on top of everything else, which took a while.


Q. You’ve said that the idea of writing an opera based on “The Classical Style” began as a joke, but somebody took you up on it. Was there ever a point when you thought, ‘You know, this just won’t work?’

A. I probably had moments of doubt like that, sure. One problem was that I kind of had too many ideas of how a “Classical Style” opera could take shape. The one that is there is like a romp, freely organized around some of my favorite passages, and around the birth and death of the classical style. But I had so many different sketches and ideas. There was a scene with Beethoven and Schroeder; there was an “Oprah” talk show, a more television-themed version of the opera. And a more Charlie Kaufman, turning in on itself, thing. The problem was, Tom [Morris, Ojai’s artistic director] had to commit me to one version, and once I had that, I had to make it make sense from beginning to end. And do justice to Charles, which is a whole different imperative. Trying to capture that sense of wonder he had about these great masters.

Q. What was Steven Stucky like to work with?

A. As generous and sweet and forgiving as possible. I can’t imagine the things he had to put up with. The original libretto was 12,000 words, which is longer than the “Don Giovanni” libretto, which was kind of a problem [laughs]. There was a sonata-form scene, and in the development of the sonata-form scene I basically had every character reappear in various surprising combinations. Which all seemed very funny and witty to me, and then Steve realized he was going to have to write basically the “Hammerklavier” Sonata to accommodate everything I’d written.

Q. Do you think you both will refine it further?


A. I imagine we will. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from watching it with an audience. Comedy is so dependent on the rhythm of audience response. The half-life of a joke is really hard to gauge from your laptop when you’re giggling to yourself about it. I think it’d be wise to hear these two performances in Berkeley and then reflect a little bit.

‘After all the noise and various stresses of organizing and overseeing all this stuff, it’ll be nice to get back to the piano playing and the transcendental. . . . It’ll feel like a vacation, oddly enough.’

Q. How nervous were you at the premiere? And was it a different kind of nervousness than waiting to go on stage to play, which at this point you’re very familiar with?

A. Oh, absolutely, I mean, I didn’t sleep properly for days, which doesn’t normally happen when I’m just performing. It was very nice to sit back and let other people have to make it happen on stage. That, I enjoyed a lot. But the helplessness, of course. . . . This thing depends on tone, it’s about lightness and moving from pun to pun, idea to idea. I’ve never done anything remotely like it, so there was that, too: What have I gotten myself into? I mean, [with] the piano playing I often think, what have I gotten myself into? But I’ve been in it so long; it’s way too late.

Q. Is it a different experience to be hoarding your literary impulses for your book, rather than letting them emerge at will, which is the sense I get from your blog?

A. It is weird, I have this intense regret and guilt about not blogging. And [the book] is very much like the opera, in that I have to commit to a structure, then kind of try to make that work. There’s so many ideas about how the book might go. . . . I have a lot of journal entries and stuff, and I feel confident that there’s material there, waiting to be mined. My editor’s been encouraging me to do two different things: One is to commit to a structure, and the other is to allow my desire for digression to fly free. She seems to feel that if I’m successful in organizing it, it will be vis a vis this digressive method. I’m still trying to figure out what all that means. But it sounds like good advice, anyway.

Q. Both at Rockport and, later in the summer at Tanglewood, you’re playing two pieces that you’ve become closely associated with. It almost seems like Old Home Week after everything else.

A. It’s nice to go back to those pieces that you’ve played many times, and your muscles fall into the comfort of habits and the understanding of how to approach the instrument. After all the noise and various stresses of organizing and overseeing all this stuff, it’ll be nice to get back to the piano playing and the transcendental. Both of those pieces require a focus on kind of one trajectory. It’ll feel like a vacation, oddly enough.

Q. You might be the first pianist in history to call a “Goldberg”/“Concord” program a vacation.

A. Exactly [laughs]. That’s what my life’s come to.

Q. Are you aware of how your approach to those pieces has changed over time?

A. I was hoping to take, like, four years off from the Goldbergs and come back to it with a completely fresh brain. But it so happens I released a recording and people want to hear it in recital. . . . There are some variations that have remained very much the same, my concept of them, and some of them change very dramatically. The tempo and character, and the balance of pathos and wit in the piece, change. The sense of the relationship between the hands changes from performance to performance. I never plan out, when I start the Goldbergs, which repeats I’m going to take. I’m not a really good planner in general, which makes the Goldbergs a really hilarious piece for me to play.

The Concord has changed quite a lot; I can see archeological layers of how I thought of it. Just some piano-playing things — things that I value now that I didn’t value then. How to create that feeling of chaos, while still maintaining that general-on-the-hill organizing thing. I think I’m more general on the hill now than soldier in the field.

Interview has been edited and condensed. David Weininger can be reached at