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Romance, Longing, and Bolts of Loving Thunder in CRB’s Fraser Studio

Jeremy Denk
Courtesy of the Artist
Jeremy Denk

Sunday, June 13, 2021
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with the Celebrity Series of Boston, pianist Jeremy Denk performs music by Robert and Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Missy Mazzoli.

Recorded on Sept. 20, 2020, in GBH's Fraser Performance Studio

Jeremy Denk, piano

Robert SCHUMANN Papillons
Clara SCHUMANN Three Romances, Op. 21
Missy MAZZOLI Bolts of Loving Thunder
Johannes BRAHMS Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

Hear Jeremy Denk in conversation with CRB's Brian McCreath (transcript below):

Jeremy Denk interview

Learn more about the Celebrity Series of Boston and see upcoming events.

Learn more about pianist Jeremy Denk.

Interview transcript:

Brian McCreath (BMcC) [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath at GBH in Boston, and Jeremy has graciously agreed to stick around for a little bit and offer some more thoughts of an already incredibly rich, contextualized program and answer some more questions and including a few questions that you in the audience have sent in to us. So thank you for sticking around with us here. And Jeremy, it's so good to have you back. This is now your sixth Celebrity Series of Boston concert, and it's sad that it couldn't be in a concert hall, for all the reasons that we already know and have to deal with. But it's so wonderful to have you here in the Fraser Performance Studio. So thanks for this.

Jeremy Denk (JD) [00:00:37] It's such a pleasure for me. And, you know, at home, what I do is I practice all day these days. Right? What else do I have to do? So I have been learning new pieces and it's amazing to share them with you. Pieces that I loved for many, many years and never really had the time to immerse myself in.

BMcC [00:00:57] Well, OK, so you've actually already answered a question that was sent to us by one of our listeners, one of our viewers for this concert. She wondered about what this time has meant for you and whether there has been the opportunity to take things on that you didn't expect to be able to take on. From this program, what is it that we've now heard that we might not have heard under other circumstances?

JD [00:01:21] You mean in this program? I had scheduled to play much of it. I hadn't played "Papillons" much since I was a little tyke and I really love that piece and I really wanted to play it again. It's so, so joyful. And it seemed like something joyful would be nice on this program because a lot of it is very somber and dark hued. And, you know, Brahms Opus 119, I had played the first piece a lot, but I hadn't played the whole suite, you know, I don't think ever, until I started working on it this last year or so. And of course, I've taught it. I've thought about it, you know, but it's great to finally sit down and play it.

BMcC [00:02:02] Yeah. Oh, wow.

JD [00:02:02] And of course, Missy's piece, which I, you know, one of my pandemic resolutions is to learn more new music. And I forgot how long it takes to do it. But it's good. It's good for the body and the brain. And that piece stuck out for me. And also a very good Brahms reference, but also a very interesting language.

BMcC [00:02:23] Yeah, yeah. And thanks for coining the term "pandemic resolution."

JD [00:02:27] Yes.

BMcC [00:02:27] I think we all need something.

JD [00:02:29] Yeah.

BMcC [00:02:29] Something to get, you know, to bring us through this time that feels so... There's so much loss. And yet there's, as you say, there's a resolution, there's exploration, discovery. So, thanks for that perspective on it. You're you're so often traveling, as you say, you don't really spend this much time at home. And so along with those musical kinds of directions that you found yourself going in, are there other ways that spending this much time in one place has changed your thinking or your approach to life or anything?

JD [00:03:03] Well, it has changed my thinking. Obviously, one of the first priorities of the pandemic was to just keep close tabs on everyone that I know.

BMcC [00:03:11] Yes. Yes.

JD [00:03:12] And so, and then I had another important thing that had been sitting on my brain and weighing me down all the time and stressing me out, which was that I had a book that had been due for many years and well past the deadline. And so I thought, well, you know, that I should deal with. And so I've been writing, and a lot of the writing is about music, and also in this, which is very weird right now, I'm writing about old teachers and lessons that sort of changed me in one way or another, you know, and made me feel music was different or differently important.

BMcC [00:03:43] Yeah.

JD [00:03:44] The ways in which music seemed more relevant and deeper. And writing those lessons, they've come, those memories have come back to me in this free time, amazingly richly, much more than they did in regular time.

BMcC [00:03:57] Yeah.

JD [00:03:57] And I had the time just to take long walks and think about those lessons and then the things that they said and then what they meant, that the possible meanings of them were wider. So yeah, that's what I'd say. And of course, piano playing, you know, I never get so much time to just think about how things ought to go.

BMcC [00:04:12] Mm hmm. I can't tell you how much I relate to this. I've just literally in the last few days myself been thinking of the very concept of memory and what it means right now. I found myself also going to music, especially from my past, that somehow is a richer memory right now, because this is what we have. This is what we've got to deal with. But you also now have, you know, maybe without intending to, you've wandered straight into another question by an audience member. He wondered about a book that you might be putting together, and he especially wanted to know if it, and it sounds like it does, it maybe grows out of a piece that you published in The New Yorker several years ago about your your life through piano lessons, if I can put it that way. It's an amazing piece, I think. If I might just say personally what I found striking in your your storytelling about your teachers and your experiences and lessons is how vulnerable you make yourself in this piece. You talk about things happening in lessons or in master classes that, frankly, I think most of us would feel like we just want to leave that buried. We don't really want to confront that again. But you're very vulnerable in this piece. And so I'm very interested now that you've taken this opportunity to flesh it out into that book that you wanted to do.

JD [00:05:31] Yeah, and the book is awash in vulnerability, and it's basically all about that.

BMcC [00:05:37] Wow.

JD [00:05:38] And in a way, because as musicians, we have to create a certain invincibility to get up on stage, but it has to coexist in this kind of humility and vulnerability. All those things have to be there for the piece to speak. So, yeah, the piece is about all my lessons, the book is about all my lessons. The piece was just about two teachers.

BMcC [00:06:03] Yeah.

JD [00:06:04] My high school teacher and my grad school teacher, who were like diametric opposites. And this this is about the whole spectrum and all the crazy characters. And I have some hilarious, I hope hilarious, stories about the Juilliard professors I met, many of whom were way, way off the reservation.

BMcC [00:06:24] Well, for those listeners and viewers who don't know this piece, it's still available on The New Yorker website. But I want to just drop a little quote that will just communicate, I think, that little bit of what you bring to your work as a writer. You're talking about one of your earlier teachers, who really sounds like he was hammering you on the basics and on the mechanics and everything. I think this was when you were living in New Mexico. And you wrote, "Imagine that you're scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address." It's a terrific line and really does kind of capture that essence of those scale exercises that you just have to force yourself through somehow leading to something profound.

JD [00:07:14] Yeah, no, it's it's a weird thing. There's a story in the book about, which I shouldn't maybe... But it's a little anecdote from my life. And I was a composer, you know, way back when, you know, when I was about eight or whatever, and I wrote this little piece.

[00:07:30] [Plays piano]

JD [00:07:36] That's basically the whole piece. Keeps repeating and changing a little bit. And my mom insisted that I write out a neat copy without any mistakes. And I went up to my room and I was trying to do it. And then the stems were all wrong, and the music, suddenly I realized how hard it is to actually notate music. And I had to use all this white-out, and it was so horrible, I swore I would never compose again. And then I wish I had just had a copy of Beethoven's manuscript to show my mom, you know, this is what a composition really looks, you know, that's what it should look like. You know, if only I'd known.

BMcC [00:08:10] That's terrific. That's wonderful. Well, again, I so thank you for giving us something to look forward to during this time of pandemic. You know, this book will come out at some point.

JD [00:08:20] I sent it off last week.

BMcC [00:08:21] You sent it off! Okay, so, in the hands of the editors and publisher now.

JD [00:08:25] That's right.

BMcC [00:08:25] We'll look forward to it. Let's talk a little about the pieces that you've just gone through. And you did such an amazing job of contextualizing so much of what you did. But what I'm struck by in your amazing storytelling around "Papillons" is that you didn't get around to telling us how the title relates to this amazing story that Jean Paul tells of the twins, and this love, and how the grandfather-- I love the grandfather's music at the end. It's really something. And that little bit of knowledge, as we heard, that really made that mean something even extra. But tell me about the title, "Papillons."

JD [00:09:04] It's a little bit of an enigma, both for me, I think, and for posterity, but Jean Paul was obsessed with butterflies, first of all, so "Papillons" meaning "butterfly." So there's a very recurring image, I guess, in his writing. But I think it also might slightly refer to the little Wieck. You know, Clara was one of several children that Robert encountered at her father's piano studio.

BMcC [00:09:29] Right. He met her when she was something like 15 or 14? Something like that?

JD [00:09:32] He met her when she was nine, I believe, he heard her play for the first time.

BMcC [00:09:36] [Laughs] Oh, my God.

JD [00:09:37] I mean, you know, he wasn't interested in her at that time.

BMcC [00:09:39] Right. Right. To be clear.

JD [00:09:41] But he, so there was a little group of children around her. And I think "Papillons" might refer to this little cluster, and it may also refer to a page, a little mini, you know, like light pages of like little fluttering ideas, which I think would be the best for me. The best image.

BMcC [00:10:00] OK.

JD [00:10:00] Yeah.

BMcC [00:10:00] OK, sure.

JD [00:10:01] Ideas that appear and then vanish, right.

BMcC [00:10:03] Yeah. Yeah. Well and so that idea and the idea of this whole story being fleshed out in this piece, or at least inspiring this piece by Schumann, I'm always curious, especially with Schumann and especially from you, given that you're a you're a writer as well as a musician, at what point does this story, and your knowledge of the story, your investment in the story, kind of become too much of a burden to carry while you're playing the music? I mean, when do you have to separate the story and just kind of play and deal with the shape of the sounds?

JD [00:10:41] It's very interesting between Brahms and Schumann. Because Brahms, the music always is the story.

BMcC [00:10:49] OK.

JD [00:10:49] You know what I mean? Or you feel like that. There's very few places in Brahms where you feel that the program is taking over. But in Schumann, there's a literary impulse there, you know, and a sort of stream-of-consciousness poetic impulse that has to do with taking music, assembling it and taking it apart, right, that he loves to do. So I don't find it a problem to think about literature while I'm playing Schumann because it just helps, you know what I mean? It, like, animates, like being all the actors, whereas in Brahms it's notes, you know what I mean? It's a very different, very different kind of thing. Even in Chopin, I don't often think of... Well, Chopin is somewhere in between.

BMcC [00:11:33] Yeah. I hear you. Yeah.

JD [00:11:35] If that makes sense.

BMcC [00:11:36] Yeah. That's really interesting. So with Clara Schumann, you did, again, a beautiful job of kind of bringing us into her music. I love the reference to Robert's Piano Concerto, but. But I also wonder, what are those qualities that really define Clara Schumann's music as distinct from Robert's or anybody else's music?

JD [00:12:04] No, it's interesting because her music is so, and I don't pretend to be an expert on her music. You know, I know these beautiful Romances for violin and piano that I've played with Joshua Bell from time to time. And that one, there's one in there that's just stunningly beautiful. And then I've played at some of the earlier pieces. And she came from a very, I would say, conservative musical upbringing, her father being a strict piano pedagog of one kind or another. And so I feel like her music, her early music has this kind of slightly hemmed in quality. It's got beautiful tunes, it tends to be a little bit on the lighter salon side of things, right? And then as you can see in these pieces, in these pieces there, there is a... You know, I will say one thing that really characterizes her, which is these dense, these chords.

[00:13:07] [Plays piano]

[00:13:07] She likes this open spaced kind of harmony, to hear the harmony, right?

BMcC [00:13:11] OK. Yeah.

JD [00:13:15] [Plays piano]

[00:13:16] Slightly too big for my hand to reach, many of them. But her hand might have been quite large, right? Probably was. She loves these.

[00:13:25] [Plays piano]

[00:13:30] If you're a pianist, you know that that's actually kind of hard to play, but she loved the sense of the harmonies, the depth of the bass. It's incredibly beautifully voiced, isn't it, the way that it's done. Schumann is not as well-voiced. Robert Schumann is not as well-voiced and hers is... This is so beautifully voiced. So brilliantly heard, right? This is more transparent than he is.

BMcC [00:14:03] That's fascinating.

JD [00:14:04] And she tends to be a little bit more symmetrical by nature. Right? If you had to say, you know, but almost everyone was more symmetrical than Schumann.

BMcC [00:14:12] Right. Right.

JD [00:14:13] From a certain perspective.

BMcC [00:14:15] Exactly. No, no, Robert's phrases do kind of all-- they're always throwing curveballs.

JD [00:14:20] He's trying. Yeah.

BMcC [00:14:20] Yeah, yeah. And then, as you say, the voicing. That's also very interesting to me because, you know, Schumann's-- Robert Schumann's symphonies have this issue that people grapple with where the orchestration doesn't doesn't quite lay naturally, and conductors are always kind of trying to muscle that into some shape that makes sense in one way or another. Some people say it's a bug. Some people say it's a feature. I don't know. But it's really interesting that you're hearing or seeing that in the music. And Clara's, perhaps her sheer virtuosity allows her to do these things that you're describing.

JD [00:14:54] Well, she could certainly play better. And she, it may have been that she was more influenced by the nature of the piano than Robert was, which he gave up, of course, having injured himself.

BMcC [00:15:05] Yeah, right. Exactly. He did something to his hand and then he couldn't really perform as a pianist anymore.

JD [00:15:10] And so many things that Robert does are against the grain of the piano and you know, as I said, you know, that even the opening, the famous opening of the Fantasie...

[00:15:19] [Plays piano]

[00:15:22] This weird rustling thing in the, you know, that's very hard to hear and play well with the gesture that he's got going. And then the melodies are just in octaves. You wish that that was a kind of a violin. There's lots of things about that opening that make you want more than what the piano actually will give, whereas with with Clara, you feel that she's playing within the bounds of the instrument. You know, exploring it, but not not fighting it.

BMcC [00:15:53] Yeah. Fantastic. Wow. Well, with Missy Mazzoli, we have someone who is of our time. And I'm always curious when people play the music of our time, how much contact you've had with Missy about this music, if any at all.

JD [00:16:07] You know, I wish I'd had more. I sent her off a video very, very recently. The piece was much harder to memorize and learn. Obviously, I played it with the music because it's all very similar patterns in different, you know, similar things, but different notes configured. Very minimalist in that, or neo-minimalist, or whatever you want to call it. So I wrote to her about a lot of little details.

BMcC [00:16:32] Yeah.

JD [00:16:32] But I haven't gotten yet a sense of the, you know, what her sense of the interpretive... We've talked about peddling and certain effects in various places a lot. And she may decide that the vision, her vision of the piece is completely different from what I played for you tonight. But I think based on what I remember of Manny's playing and then there's a couple, there's at least one recording. So we'll see. Maybe Missy will change it and I'll come back and play it again in the truer Mazzoli style. I really adore this piece and I've been writing, I've been bothering her in the most horrendous way every day. And it's so, for me, this so hauntingly beautiful.

[00:17:17] [Plays piano]

[00:17:17] A lot of these places where she creates this sense of space around the notes. And again, the voicings are really brilliantly considered. And so, a lot of my practice time is just like, "Oh, how beautiful is that?" Which is a dangerous thing to do.

BMcC [00:17:32] Well, and this title, "Bolts of Loving Thunder," comes from a poem called "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape."

JD [00:17:41] Right.

BMcC [00:17:41] By John Ashbery. Again, any particular relationship with that poem that may have led you to some way of playing her music?

JD [00:17:54] I haven't gotten that deep in it with her yet, I'll admit. If I had to say, in my personal vision, all these incredible-- I'll show you.

[00:18:04] [Plays piano]

[00:18:04] Gestures, [Sings] across the keyboard, they feel like they could be "bolts of loving thunder." Maybe that the, you know, the sense of the gestures striking at the notes in various ways and especially at the end.

[00:18:17] [Plays piano]

[00:18:21] The way those harmonies come out. They feel like they kind of explode out of all the process that happened before. And so that's my interpretation, which may be complete garbage.

BMcC [00:18:37] [Laughs] I'm buying it, myself. So for us right now, it's going to work. And then, so then is there a way that that music helps us to hear something different in Brahms? I mean, you did a beautiful job of connecting especially to early Brahms, but this is very late Brahms. Is there a way that that sort of, that Missy Mazzoli takes us into Brahms in a slightly different way with these late pieces as well?

JD [00:19:03] I had hoped, you know, something of the mystical and haunted quality of that piece. For me, of Missy's piece,

BMcC [00:19:10] Yeah. Yeah.

JD [00:19:10] I would transfer over to the [Plays piano]. And also the harmonies are from a similar... she's doing a lot of, Missy is doing a lot of relation by third. [Plays piano], you know, these kind of harmonies or [Plays piano].

BMcC [00:19:26] Right.

JD [00:19:29] And Brahms, of course, obsessed with thirds his whole life, almost every tune he wrote is thirds.

[Plays piano and sings]

No, like literally every piece.

[Plays piano and sings]

He loves them and he loves how they can cycle around. So, yeah, I had hoped that connection was there.

BMcC [00:19:54] Yeah, it was beautiful. Also the connection between the way that Missy ends her piece and the way that Schumann ended "Papillons." Perfect.

JD [00:20:01] Yeah, they're similar.

BMcC [00:20:02] Yeah. Yeah. Well, Jeremy, this has been just a terrific evening. Thanks so much for, of course, all the music, but everything else that you offer in this program. Again, it's so wonderful to have you back for your sixth Celebrity Series of Boston concert. You know, and I know that there will be many more and hopefully the next one will be in a concert hall where we are seeing you on stage and we are in the audience. It's the most we can hope for. So thanks again.

JD [00:20:28] With great pleasure. Thanks for the chat.

BMcC [00:20:30] I'm Brian McCreath and thank you for joining us for this concert from the Celebrity Series of Boston.