Denk’s Foray into Fauré

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 2, 2024
Jeremy Denk is roughly halfway through his four week residency and is just getting started (photo by Zach Mendez)

The Music Academy audience has already seen a lot of Jeremy Denk. The piano great is in his 10th season as a faculty teaching artist on campus, which assignment began less than two years after Denk was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and the summer after he served as the Ojai Festival’s music director. In the course of his role as MAW faculty teaching artist, there have been two master classes, as well as Denk’s MAW debut as a lecturer-performer. That debut saw Denk both playing and discussing Charles Ives’ “Concord Piano Sonata No. 2,” this on the auspicious occasion of Mr. Ives’ 150th birthday. Denk describes the event as having gone better than he expected, as he’s a big fan of the composer. 

“He’s very impatient with a lot of the pretension of classical music, and he tries to reassess what the purpose of listening to music is,” Denk explained. “He’s also trying to recreate the idea of music as an emblem of community. It’s so incredibly moving, the way that he makes us re-hear even the most fundamental aspects of music.”

Joshua Bell joins Denk for a Granada show on July 2nd (photo by Phillip Knott)

The same, of course, could be said of Denk, a master who seems to approach a piece with both enthusiasm and a wondrous curiosity. It’s as if Denk is avidly playing the piece for the first time, even as he pours into its all of the experience and wisdom he’s acquired over the years. 

We’ll get to enjoy the pianist in performance twice more before Denk’s four-week residency expires at the end of next week, starting with a July 2 recital with Mosher guest artist and Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell at the Granada, who was just there this past spring as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. 

The Granada concert is the rekindling of a longtime connection between the two superstar musicians, one that dates back decades, even if the concertizing took a moment to come about. 

“Actually, it was Joshua’s mother who felt we should play together before Joshua ever did,” Denk said, explaining that she had heard the pianist play in Bloomington. But it wasn’t until Bell heard Denk play Bach in Spoleto that he reached out, after noticing that Denk was a fellow storyteller. That began an association that resulted in touring together on-and-off for eight years. 

“We all want to bring the narrative across by whatever means possible, even though we may have some very different perspectives on how you might do that,” said Denk, whose prowess at the other kind of keyboard – the one he uses to write prose – has also been confirmed via his bestselling 2002 book Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons. “We developed a shorthand to work with the creative tension which, at its best, becomes something really useful for the music. We still very much enjoy playing together.”

Five years ago, Bell and Denk also toured with cellist Steven Isserlis in a trio that performed in concert at Campbell Hall for UCSB A&L. Now at MAW, Denk, Bell and Mosher guest artist Isserlis are also part of the Fauré Project, along with faculty violist Richard O’Neill of the Takács Quartet. They’ll mark the 100-year anniversary of French composer Gabriel Fauré’s death by playing three of his finest chamber works at Hahn Hall on July 5. The impetus was classical record label Hyperion wanting to record all of Fauré’s chamber music with the trio and others, Denk said. 

“I figured this summer would be a great time for us all to be here and talk about Fauré’s music and work on it and rehearse. And then I figured with Josh here, why not take out some pieces that we hadn’t played together for a while and play them for all of you as kind of a reunion. This is a very long-term artistic collaboration that we’ve had many great times with. Let’s do it again.” 

Which is why the Granada duo concert features Mozart’s “Sonata No. 18,” Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 7,” Stravinsky’s “Divertimento” (Le Baiser de la fée), as well as a piece not yet listed on the program.

“Joshua hasn’t told me yet, either, so it will be a surprise; although hopefully I’ll know a few days before we play it,” Denk said. “I think the classical world could use a little more of that program to-be-announced situation.” 

While Denk and Bell have played all the pieces together before, he said he imagines there will be subtle if not more pronounced adjustments this time around.

“Life just comes into us, and then it can’t help but affect the way that you want music to feel,” he said. “It’s not that you’re channeling your personal traumas, although sometimes that happens. But values shift as you grow older, or you move to different places in how you experience the music. I’m always hearing differently, different tempos, a different whole vibe.” 

Asked for an example, Denk cited Mozart. 

“He included a broad cross section of humanity from peasant to upper class to everything in between in his operas. He has this kind of universal empathy, and my sense of Mozart and how to play him is more like that now than ever.” 

The Fauré Project has also fostered an increased appreciation of the composer’s career, Denk said. 

“He had these fascinating phases. We’re playing some of the more opulent, conventionally romantic middle Fauré in a piano quartet, then two later pieces when he becomes even more intriguing because he’d lived in a way past his own style,” Denk explained. “He became a romantic composer adrift in the wilds of modernism. He begins to reevaluate the ideas and gestures that he used to write, and becomes more abstract, weaving into the harmonies and almost getting lost entirely, as in an amazing Henry James sentence – finding these incredibly subtle paths through the world of harmony. Steven is one of the great interpreters of this music, and he has a way of creating a line through the labyrinth while also harnessing the incredible pulsing expression underneath all the complicated harmonies.

“That’s the reason I wanted to do this project – to play this music with him and to imbibe his learning, and just revel in the gorgeous harmonies one after the other.”

After a stunning performance in Hahn Hall last year, Anthony Parnther is taking over the Granada (photo by Zach Mendez)

On both July 2, and July 5, surely the audience will be doing a lot of reveling too. 

Thursday, June 27: César Cañón, MAW’s new principal coach of Lehrer Vocal Institute’s studio artists, is a veteran of instrumental chamber piano music as well as art song and operatic repertoire. But here he focuses on coaching and teaching, including today’s masterclass, where, we imagine, the vocal pianists will get some attention (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… Tonight’s second X2 concert of the summer pairs a full 14 fellows with half a dozen faculty artists, including John Churchwell – the MAW vet in his second year as co-director of LVI – for a notably varied program. The bill has Beethoven’s “Wind Quintet in E-flat Major” leading to two vocal works in Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge, and Schubert’s Lied “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D. 965” (The Shepherd on the Rock), before closing out with Schoenberg’s one movement string sextet “Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4” (Transfigured Night). That’s a lot of classical bang for your buck! (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $45)

Friday, June 28: It was just two weeks ago that the winner of the 2023 Solo Piano Competition performed in recital at Hahn Hall to kick off the season, but it’s already time for this year’s half-dozen keyboard virtuosos to take their shot at stardom, MAW-style. Prizes for whomever emerges from the fierce but friendly battle between Po Han Chiu, Henry From, Iskandar Mamadaliev, Sol Park, Kevin Takeda, and Alice Zhang include a significant cash award (11 am; Hahn Hall; $55)… Picnic Concerts have transformed into Fellows Fridays, which is truly just a new name for a marvelous MAW tradition, as guests can now not only bring their own fancy lunches or dinners for every event at Miraflores, they can even reserve a table in advance. The concerts still consist of fellows-curated programs of favored chamber works and those they want or need to learn for the future. Tonight, 17 different young musicians combine to play a 90-minute program that includes Jan Zelenka’s “Trio Sonata No. 3 in B-flat Major,” William Grant Still’s “Ennanga,”James Stephenson’s “Celestial Suite”and Gabriela Ortiz’ “Atlas Pumas.” (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $45)

Saturday, June 29: For his MAW debut last year, Renaissance music man Anthony Parnther – he of the singularly unique career that melds his love for the music of all genres with his prowess as a conductor, producer, bassoon soloist, recording artist, opera singer, storyteller, comedian, voice-over artist, and activist, not to mention highly sought-after conductor for movie and TV soundtracks – was “relegated” to Hahn Hall. This year, he’s graduated to the Granada where a lot more folks can witness his acumen, artistry and charm in a cleverly curated program of Joan Huang’s “Tujia Dance,” Florence Price’s unjustly overlooked “Symphony No. 3 in C Minor” and Stravinsky’s once controversial/now classic “The Rite of Spring.” Superstar Parnther said his visit to Miraflores last summer was his favorite experience of the year. Coincidentally, he was also my favorite interview of the season. (7:30 pm; Granada; $18-$115)

Wednesday, July 3: Mosher guest artist and cellist extraordinaire Steven Isserlis, who is also part of next week’s Fauré Project, plays in recital with frequent pianist partner Connie Shih for sonatas by Beethoven and Fauré, “Trois pièces” by Nadia Boulanger and “Lieux retrouvés” by Thomas Adès. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $65)  


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