Note: Denk has announced a program change for this recital and is now performing Bach's Goldberg Variations. See here.
Nearly a century ago, a former San Francisco Symphony violist who believed in the value of written jazz arrangements prepared a concert to showcase developments in American music. His name was Paul Whiteman, and though many believed his formal arrangements lacked the essential improvisatory element of jazz, the concert turned out to be a historic success.
The Symphony now presents Jeremy Denk, who intends to continue that narrative, albeit without losing popular hits like the “Moonlight” Sonata.
The pianist, composer, writer, 45, appears in solo recital at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday, March 20 with a program bookended by Bach, Beethoven and Schubert, with an unusual centerpiece of jazz and ragtime.
“Jazz is one of the great, great inventions,” Denk says, “and what I love about this set is the way the various European composers who should have been very satisfied with themselves -- they probably were -- found something really to admire and love about jazz, and needed to respond to it in their own music somehow.”
One of the pieces on the program is “Canon” by Conlon Nancarrow, which Denk discovered in graduate school. The American-born composer was once considered by György Ligeti “the best of any living composer,” his music marked by rhythmic vivacity and challenges. Many of his works written for player piano are so frenetic that they've been deemed unplayable by human hands.
“The second voice comes in 7/5ths as fast as the first, so it’s had one cup of coffee more,” Denk says. “It runs after the left hand, they catch up, meet, and split up again. His music makes me laugh and smile in a way that much modern music does not, and it channels the jazz idiom while doing something completely different with it.”
Perhaps the one nightclub pianist who earned the utmost of admiration from Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Horowitz and Oistrakh, amongst others, was Art Tatum, whose transcription of Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two” is included in Denk's program at Davies.
“Tatum sounds like nobody else. He had the colossal ability to put in more notes than you thought was possible. And yes, we had to put in fingerings -- like any tricky technical problems, they have to be solved,” he laughs. “The whole point of the suite is to connect the rhythmic joys of jazz with things we consider stuffier, to think about syncopation and wit and dislocation. These people represented something great and American about rhythmic imagination that belongs to our culture more or less uniquely.”
One distinction Denk draws concerns the golden age of music-making, the turn-of-the-century way of playing discernible for its freedom of imagination, beauty and excitement, and why performers no longer sound the way they used to.
“It’s interesting to think about how the prevalence of pop music and the beat of popular music has sort of educated us all to want music to be steady, to be played out over an almost machine-like exactitude. Don’t we all like things precise, fast and in time? Piano teaching has also become so regimented that some of these amazing report cards look like military evaluation forms,” he laughs.
His own experiences with regimented piano lessons, auditions and report cards are the subject of Denk's upcoming book, Every Good Boy Does Fine, in addition to the pieces he furnishes for the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the New York Times Book Review. If anything, those rules-oriented approaches to playing only solidified Denk's resolve toward adventure and discovery.
“I think we’re all caught up in the same value system -- myself included," Denk says. "There is a general culture that we are servants of the composer. We do what the composer writes, theoretically, and that’s a very noble impulse. But it also tends to forget the millions of things that could never be notated in any score, what might be inferred or what’s between the notes.”
As it happens, at Paul Whiteman's concert of jazz arrangements nearly a century ago -- one of the first public experiments of “what's between the notes” -- a young pianist gave the world premiere of a Whiteman commission. The work was "Rhapsody in Blue," the pianist was George Gershwin, and American music would never be the same.