Q&A with Pianist Jeremy Denk
Following the March 25, 2015 UMS performance by Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, pianist Jeremy Denk (who performed with the group) spent some time with the students from the University of Michigan Engaging Performance course.
Student Spotlight: U-M First-year Student Isabel Park Sets Out to Explore Piano
Editor’s Note: Isabel Park is a first-year student at the University of Michigan, where she’s studying piano at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. This year, she’ll explore piano throughout our 2015 season, attending performances by pianist Yuja Wang and violinist Leonidas Kavakos (11/23), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra with pianist Hélène Grimaud (2/19), Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with pianist Jeremy Denk (3/25), and pianist Richard Goode (4/26).
In the essay below, she explores her relationship with the piano. Follow her adventures and thoughts on UMS Lobby.
From left to right, pianists Yuja Wang, Hélène Grimaud, Jeremy Denk, and Richard Goode, all part of the 2014-2015 UMS season. Photos by Ian Douglas, Mat Hennek, and Michael Wilson.
The complexity of piano playing is astounding. Rarely do other tasks demand the intensity of full-body engagement that the piano does. Given its intricacy, piano playing can be crudely divided into technical and mental aspects; not surprisingly, a successful piano performance ultimately relies on the pianist’s adeptness in both areas, and the relative importance of each with respect to the other remains a highly disputed topic amongst pianists.
Is technique vital?
However, the relationship between a pianist’s musicianship and technical capacity is not so mutually complementary as it is often thought to be, but rather one-sidedly supplementary. Improving an aspect of one’s playing does not necessarily do the same for the other. Instead, technique supplements ability to express with a boundless sense of musicianship and musicality. Solid technique is not only a desirable, but vital to superlative piano playing that encompasses both outstanding technicality and depth of expression.
It is natural to conclude that the technical facet of piano performance is easier to approach— not necessarily easy— in the sense that improving one’s technique can be done methodically. While musicianship primarily concerns the mind, a highly equivocal part to deal with, technique mainly deals with the pianist’s physical body. The pianist can pinpoint and address specific parts of the body to enhance corresponding areas of technical facility. Not only that, technical development is easier to facilitate than musical growth because it can be measured by a universal numeric system in the form of tempi and durations, which enable objective comparisons and indications of improvement.
A unique body engagement
Yes, piano playing demands an exceptional degree of body engagement. Not only are we exercising hand-eye coordination of infinitesimal detail and precision, but the feet are also working their own set of motion. Even more uniquely, playing piano requires an unusual amount of bodily symmetry. A string player holds and draws the bow with her right hand while the left hand takes charge of fingering; similarly, a brass player manages valves with the left hand while the right hand provides support. On the piano, the hands of a pianist cover the very same keys, able even to crossover, to exchange control over different ranges, which truly gives a pianist’s hands symmetric action and equal opportunity. The bodily symmetry of piano playing also applies to the feet as they share access to the three pedals— one foot per outer pedal and a third equally distanced between the other two.
This quality of piano playing has a rather burdening implication: a pianist’s left and right hands and feet must be perfectly equivalent in terms of technical dexterity. The solution seems unrealistically simple— train each half of the body identically. Unfortunately, this proves problematic because most of us are born with dominant hands and legs that naturally possess a higher level of technical proficiency. The pianist is left with a challenge, alongside many others, of developing an artificial ambidexterity in order to master the symmetric art of piano playing.
Interestingly, piano playing is also set apart from the playing of other instruments by a factor of non-symmetry. This happens in two different, but related, respects— clefs and voices. Aside from other keyboard-natured instruments ( organ, harpsichord), the piano is the only instrument that requires the player to simultaneously read and internalize two different clefs.
A polyphonic ability
But above all, the pinnacle of piano playing and its grandeur is derived from the pianist’s polyphonic ability. Once the pianist considers the multitude of voices that he or she produces, the asymmetric factor becomes intensely complex. Although the prime examples of polyphonic music are the Bach fugues that showcase up to five voices at a time, essentially all piano music encompasses varying degrees of polyphony.
The abundance of notes is not an arbitrary flux, but rather multiple voices concurrently played. The pianist’s responsibility is to prioritize: which is the melody and which are accompaniment? He or she must voice accordingly in order to clearly and efficiently deliver the melody. The greater individuality the fingers possess, the easier this is, since the hand playing the melody is often playing an accompanying voice as well.
But the true challenge of playing polyphonic music extends beyond our fingers. The pianist’s brain must be able to process what is comparable to multiple languages to deliver a cohesive, collective body of sound. This also challenges the ears. The problem usually arises at the point of memorization. At this point, the pianist might be so accustomed to knowing the piece as the collective body of sound that she strives to produce; however, complete memory requires a detailed knowledge of each and every line of sound within the piece as well.
Being on stage
Finally, no matter how prepared, many external factors tamper with a performer’s mental condition when on stage. Performance anxiety almost always results in hyper-awareness, oversensitivity to one’s surroundings and one’s own playing, even. In many cases, the performer becomes so aware of miniscule details that perception is distorted. She could hear things within the piece that seem new or even forget the first note.
In any case, the goal is to replicate this hyper awareness in the practice room so that one simply cannot be ove-aware on stage. To combat this, isolate each sense— hearing, sight, and touch— and focus entirely on it. This level of focus is extremely difficult to maintain for prolonged periods, so dividing the movement or piece into compact sections is more productive.
Why see performances?
But given the endless ways to learn through practice and internalizing, nothing can directly replace the inspiration and teaching that transpires during a live performance. That’s why I am particularly excited to see Yuja Wang, Hélène Grimaud, Jeremy Denk, and Richard Goode live this season.
Yuja Wang has visited my hometown, San Francisco, quite a few times, and I’ve missed all of those performances. The endless mentions of her amazing technical facility and her controversial outfits have raised my curiosity as a fellow female pianist. As for Hélène Grimaud, I first heard of her through a pianist friend who raved about her live performances. Not one to praise easily, my friend has inspired me to find out first-hand what’s made her playing so extraordinary. I read Jeremy Denk‘s blog extensively, and love his very deep sense of understanding of music, something I consider quite important to good performance. On the contrary, Richard Goode remains quite a mystery to me; I know that he is part of the piano faculty at Mannes and have heard highly positive reviews of his performances. I cannot wait to see him perform live to discover what it is about him that captures those around him.
Interested in more? Follow Isabel’s thoughts and adventures here on UMS Lobby. She’ll participate in our “People are Talking!” conversations after each performance she attends.
First “Mavericks” – Guest Blog by Leslie Stainton
Photo: The SFS percussion performing in Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra as part of the Opening Concert of the American Mavericks Festival in San Francisco. (l-r James Lee Wyatt, Artie Storch, Tom Hemphill) Credit: Kristen Loken.
Editor’s Note: Lobby contributor Leslie Stainton will guest blog the San Francisco Symphony American Mavericks festival throughout this weekend.
For starters, there was the matter of dress: instead of 19th-century penguin suits, the men in the SF Symphony’s opening American Mavericks concert last night wore casual black pants and open-collared black shirts. You could feel their pleasure. That pleasure turned into radiant joy as the evening progressed, and the musicians worked their way through the bracing, at times tempestuous, at times haunting music of Copland, Cowell, Lou Harrison, and the young, Philadelphia-born Mason Bates, who performed onstage in his own evocative “Mass Transmission,” which had its world premiere last week in San Francisco.
Even if you think you hate this stuff—and for those who chafe at dissonance, there was plenty to hate—last night’s concert was a marvel. If only for the chance to see oxygen tanks take a percussive pounding center-stage. If only for the chance to hear Hill’s glorious organ get a workout the likes of which might have made Bach’s jaw drop. If only for the sheer delight of watching pianist Jeremy Denk slam his body into a Steinway again and again and come up beaming.
If only for the brief and almost gossipy talks Michael Tilson Thomas gave before each work on the program. Thomas not only knows these pieces but knew the composers and told stories about each, so as you listened to the works you could picture old Henry Cowell hanging out with an Irish cult in the woods north of San Francisco or Lou Harrison proudly driving one of the Bay Area’s first cars to run on leftover restaurant grease.
A few highlights:
As the orchestra tunes up onstage—no happy trills here, but rather discordant tones, squeaks, mournful bleats—I read with admiration a short program note by co-sponsor Maxine Frankel, who says she and her husband helped fund these concerts to ensure that UMS “has the flexibility to consider the new, the different, the innovative, and the cutting-edge.” In a country whose public schools are slashing arts education, we desperately need this kind of thinking. Thank you, Frankels.
Michael Tilson Thomas takes the stage. “What does it mean to be a maverick?” he asks. The next four nights will help shape answers.
Midway through Copland’s “Orchestral Variations,” percussionists are snapping their fingers. My husband and I look at each other and grin. “This is so refreshing,” he says to me later. “The array of different sounds.”
Introducing Henry Cowell’s “Piano Concerto,” MTT (as orchestra members call him) speaks of the composer as a Bay Area “maverist” famous for “vast splodges of notes.” Thomas says we can expect to hear traces of Cowell’s prodigious knowledge as an ethnomusicologist—and we do.
The opening notes of Cowell’s concerto sound like cars in traffic. But then: surprising beauty. I feel for a moment as if I’m at a cocktail party with someone rippling the piano in the background. Jeremy Denk’s face is a wonder: he grimaces, shakes his jowels, heaves his body into the keyboard.
The piano as machine gun.
Denk convulses. He’s playing impossibly fast. Chopsticks on speed.
Utter cacophony suddenly and bewilderingly culminates in an almost kitschy Hollywood ending. We’re done. The audience erupts. My friend Jim Kister, who’s sitting two rows in front of us, and whose musical tastes run to the conventional, takes his time applauding. During intermission I ask him what he thought:
I ask one of the ushers how she liked the first half. “It’s unique,” she says, tight-lipped. And then: “I’m anxious to see what they do with the oxygen tanks.” She means the string of big tanks parked downstage left, which have yet to be used. There are also big wooden drums, suspended gongs, chimes, a celesta.
The U-M Chamber Choir takes the stage for Mason Bates’s “Mass Transmission.” Shouts of recognition from friends in the crowd. Bates himself looks like a college kid—skinny, dressed in a pullover and jeans, I think. He’ll function like a DJ on what he calls “electronica”—digital samplings and techno beats.
This piece is gorgeous. Consonant, accessible. “Maverick” doesn’t have to be ugly, I realize. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears tonight, but Bates achieves it with his lyrical rumination on communication, technology, and the love between a mother and her daughter. Earlier he’s described this piece, about one of the world’s first long-distance communications initiatives, as “basically a story of skyping in 1920.”
An ethereal ending—tones just drift off, and we’re left to contemplate the (presumably now-dead) real-life mother and child at the heart of this piece, and the way we live today vs. the miracle of this kind of communication nearly a century ago. How clever of Bates to use new technology to simulate and suggest the old. And through it all, the power of the human voice (which Bates says represents “the most beautiful animal warmth we have.”)
MTT introduces the last piece, Lou Harrison’s “Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra.” The stage is stripped away—just the organ and an array of often bizarre instruments (rasps, rattles, plumber’s pipes …). I’m reminded of the friend who refers to the percussion section as “the toy department.” MTT says, “This concerto represents Harrison’s extraordinary view of the musical world.” It’s got the rhythmic drive of the gamelan, of Africa, hints of 12-tone music, Middle Eastern vocal traditions.
I’m hearing echoes of “Einstein on the Beach” in the organ’s runs. UMS has truly bookended its Renegade series.
Medieval sounds. Beauty I didn’t expect.
More echoes of “Einstein.” Was Glass a disciple of Harrison?
A rousing evenings ends in a burst of percussive battering that folds into the eloquent ring of a suspended gong. Long fade to silence, and then again, the audience is on its feet. Earlier another friend I’d spotted in the audience told me, “I had a cup of coffee beforehand, because I thought I might have trouble staying awake, but it’s the last thing I needed.
Afterward, I run into Mona DeQuis and a colleague from the DSO shop, who are selling CDs in the lobby. We talk about the evening’s music:
11/12 Choral Union Series
Within the signature Choral Union Series, UMS presents 10 concerts in historic Hill Auditorium:
Subscription packages go on sale to the general public on Monday, May 9, and will be available through Friday, September 17. Current subscribers will receive renewal packets in early May and may renew their series upon receipt of the packet. Tickets to individual events will go on sale to the general public on Monday, August 22 (via www.ums.org) and Wednesday, August 24 (in person and by phone). Not sure if you’re on our mailing list? Click here to update your mailing address to be sure you’ll receive a brochure.
John Malkovich in The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer
with The Vienna Academy Orchestra
and sopranos Valerie Vinzant and Louise Fribo
Martin Haselböck, conductor
Saturday, October 1, 8pm
John Malkovich makes his UMS debut as a dead serial killer who returns to the stage to present his autobiography in a public reading. Malkovich appears as part of a theatrical opera of sorts that features a 40-piece chamber orchestra and two sopranos telling the real-life story of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer and acclaimed prison poet who had been pardoned by the Austrian president Kurt Waldheim in 1990 at the behest of Viennese literati. This gripping performance uses arias and music by Gluck, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Boccherini, and Haydn as the counterpoint to Malkovich’s emotional monologue, which shifts between reality and delusion.
Yuja Wang, piano
Sunday, October 9, 4pm
Twenty-four-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is widely recognized for playing that combines the spontaneity and fearless imagination of youth with the discipline and precision of a mature artist. She made her UMS debut in January 2008, just months after graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music, and since then has spent each year criss-crossing the globe with a cavalcade of impressive debuts and awards, including the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, given to select musicians destined for bright solo careers.
Ravel | Miroirs
Copland | Piano Variations
Rachmaninoff | Selected Preludes
Brahms | Sonata No. 1 or No. 3
Apollo’s Fire with Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor
Jeannette Sorrell, music director
Thursday, November 3, 8pm
UMS is delighted to welcome French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in his UMS debut for this performance with Apollo’s Fire, “one of the nation’s leading baroque orchestras.” (Boston Globe) Named for the classical god of music and the sun, Apollo’s Fire was founded in 1992 by the young harpsichordist and conductor Jeannette Sorrell, who envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke various passions in its listeners. Together they explore the full dramatic range of Handel and Vivaldi’s arias for the virtuoso castrato singers of the 18th century.
Handel | “Disperato il mar turbato” from Oreste
Handel | “Con l’ali di costanza” from Ariodante
Vivaldi | Concerto for Four Violins in b minor
Vivaldi | “Se in ogni guardo” from Orlando Finto Pazzo
Vivaldi | “Se mai senti spirati sul volto” from Catone in Utica
Vivaldi/Sorrell | La Folia (“Madness”)
Vivaldi | “Vedro con mio diletto” from Giustino
Vivaldi | “Nel profondo” from Orlando Furioso
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
Janine Jansen, violin
Tuesday, December 6, 8pm
The London Philharmonic returns for its first appearance since November 2006, this time under the direction of the exciting young conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who became the orchestra’s principal conductor in 2007, succeeding Kurt Masur. Janine Jansen, a 23-year-old violinist who has been a huge star in her native Holland ever since her Concertgebouw debut at the age of 10, makes her UMS debut as violin soloist.
Pintscher | Towards Osiris (2005)
Mozart | Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 (1775)
Tchaikovsky | Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 (1885)
From the Canyon to the Stars
Hamburg State Symphony
Jeffrey Tate, conductor
Francesco Tristano, piano
Daniel Landau, filmmaker
Sunday, January 29, 4pm
In 1971, Alice Tully, a New York performer and philanthropist who contributed toward the construction of the chamber music hall in Lincoln Center that bears her name, commissioned the French composer Olivier Messiaen to write a piece commemorating America’s Bicentennial. Messiaen was inspired and fascinated by the natural wonder he found in the landscapes of the American West. Des canyons aux étoiles represents Messiaen’s sonic impressions of America’s last untouched frontier.
Messiaen | Des canyons aux étoiles
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
Friday, March 9, 8pm
Riccardo Muti, the Chicago Symphony’s new music director, makes his first UMS appearance in 6 years, conducting an all-Brahms program. Violinist Pinchas Zukerman, recognized as a phenomenon for nearly four decades, returns to UMS for a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Brahms | Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Brahms | Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Denis Matsuev, piano
Thursday, March 15, 8pm
Anyone who attended last season’s concert by the Mariinsky Orchestra came away talking about one thing: the astonishing piano soloist Denis Matsuev, whose extraordinary performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto had the audience buzzing in the lobby at intermission, immediately after the performance, and for weeks beyond the concert hall.
Tchaikovsky | Seasons, Op. 37a
Rachmaninoff | Prelude in g minor, Op. 23, No. 5
Rachmaninoff | Prelude in g-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12
Rachmaninoff | Étude-Tableaux, Op. 39, No. 6
Scriabin | Etude in c-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Scriabin | Etude in d-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 12
Tchaikovsky | Dumka (Russian Rustic Scene), Op. 59
Stravinsky | Three Movements from Petrouchka
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Featuring: Emanuel Ax, piano
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Jessye Norman, soprano, Meredith Monk, vocals, and Joan La Barbara, vocals
Jeremy Denk, piano
Paul Jacobs, organ
Thursday, March 22 – Saturday, March 24
As part of its centennial season, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will present its second American Mavericks Festival in March 2012, which will tour to only two venues in the US: Hill Auditorium and Carnegie Hall. The 2012 festival celebrates the creative pioneering spirit and the composers who created a new American musical voice for the 20th century and beyond. Choral Union Subscribers may choose two of the three concerts on the series.
Program 1 (Thurs 3/22, 7:30p)
Paul Jacobs, organ
Jeremy Denk, piano
Aaron Copland | Orchestral Variations (1930, orchestrated in 1957)
Henry Cowell | Piano Concerto (1928)
Mason Bates | Mass Transmission (2010)
Lou Harrison | Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra
Program 2 (Fri 3/23, 8pm)
Jessye Norman, soprano
Meredith Monk, vocalist
Joan La Barbara, vocalist
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Henry Cowell | Synchrony
John Adams | Absolute Jest (2011)
John Cage | John Cage Songbooks (1970)
Edgard Varese | Amériques
Program 3 (Sat 3/24, 8pm)
Emanuel Ax, piano
Carl Ruggles | Sun-Treader
Morton Feldman | Piano and Orchestra (1975)
Ives | A Concord Symphony
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Joshua Bell, director and violinist
Sunday, April 22, 4pm
Formed from a group of leading London musicians and working without a conductor, the Academy gave its first performance in its namesake church in November 1959. For their first UMS appearance in 11 years, the Academy brings their highly lauded sound to an exquisite all-Beethoven program. Superstar violinist Joshua Bell attacks the stunning Beethoven Concerto with his breathtaking virtuosity and sumptuous tone and leads the rest of the program from the concertmaster’s chair.
Beethoven | Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Beethoven | Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 62
Beethoven | Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Return to the complete chronological list.