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Gerald Carpenter: Music Academy’s Summer Fest to Wrap Up With Pianist Jeremy Denk

The first week of the Music Academy of the West’s 2016 Summer Festival began with a solo piano masterclass Monday, June 13, led by American pianist Jeremy Denk, a Luria Foundation artist in residence, and it will conclude with a recital by Denk at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18, in Hahn Hall.

Denk’s closing program has a range, both temporal and geographical, that seems all but unprecedented.

The works he will perform include music by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377), François Couperin (1668-1733), Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Johannes Brahms (1833-97), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), John Cage (1912-92), György Ligeti (1923-2006), and John Adams (b. 1947). At the end, he will close the circle with a second work by Machaut.

The title of the program, which Denk clearly signed off on, if he did not coin, is “Medieval to Modern.” That about covers it, I’d say, but to what end?

Denk’s program is full of delights and excitements, but its vast eclecticism and the quasi-academic venue — more academic than quasi, actually — suggest that he has more on his mind than just entertainment.

There are, in fact, one or two (hundred) things about music that he wants to pass on to us, and he has developed a unique way of presenting his material that makes learning as much of a pleasure as listening.

Combining the roles of piano teacher and tour guide, he will walk us through the history of western music.

Like a select few of his fellow pianists — Glenn Gould and Charles Rosen, for instance — Denk is a gifted writer as well as a brilliant pianist, and his reviews and essays have appeared in the most prestigious journals: The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books.

Many of his pieces are available through his excellent website, and I commend them to you for many hours of enjoyable reading.

One piece has a particular relevance to Denk’s involvement with the Music Academy of the West. It is a Proustian consideration of his education as a pianist that appeared in the April 8, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Called “Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Life in Piano Lessons,” it contains many amusing anecdotes and much sound philosophy, for Denk the virtuoso concert pianist has generally shared his body with Denk the gifted educator.

He spent several years as a professor at the University of Indiana and is currently on the faculty of Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson.

Anyone who has ever taken piano lessons as a child — whether you became a world famous virtuoso, like Denk, or bombed out at your first recital, like me — will find a great deal to identify with in Denk’s recollections.

I call the piece Proustian not only because Denk, hopelessly addicted to reading, is an intense admirer of Proust’s great novel but also because his own search for lost time was triggered by a very Proustian experience: his parents came to one of his concerts and presented him with his piano lesson journal from his first years as a student.

Like the taste of a certain kind of cookie dipped in tea, leafing through the notebook revived the whole period in detail.

“In popular culture,” Denk writes, “music lessons are often linked with psychological torment. People apparently love stories about performing-arts teachers who drive students mad, breaking their spirits with pitiless exactitude... I’ve often rolled my eyes at the music-lesson clichés of movies: the mind games and power plays, the teacher with the quaint European accent who says, ‘You will never make it, you are not a real musician,’ in order to get you to work even harder. But as the notebook recalled memories of lessons I’d had — both as a child and later, once the piano became my life — I wondered if my story was all that different.”

Thinking about the mind-deadening exercises students must grind away at, and how hard it is to believe that this will one day help you play Beethoven, he remarks: “Imagine that you are 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.”

Once he got to college, he encountered the terrifying internecine warfare of an academic department. At Oberlin, he writes, “I began to recognize the various species of teacher: the holistic nurturers and the sarcastic beraters; the belittlers, the analyzers, the gym coaches, and the old hands who believe that musicianship can’t really be taught. Teachers would tell me that other teachers were misguiding me, and I began to perceive a hidden web of personal agendas and resentments.”

Then, one night, he attends a recital by the Hungarian pianist, György Sebők, hears him play the “Gigue” (or Jig) from Bach’s Partita No. 1, and the veil of the temple is rent asunder.

Eventually, Sebők became Denk’s mentor, and the performance proved to be the decisive encounter that set the young pianist on the right path for good and all.

“Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice — the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.”

Then Denk began to teach himself, and he discovered that he was really carrying on his own education by other means.

“When you give ideas to students,” he says, “they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque: there is the student, trying to be you with all his youthful might. You look on with horror at this knockoff, this puppet — yourself to the nth degree as interpreted by someone who doesn’t know all the other parts of you. Then a thought occurs: what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of this struggling student do you see what you’re really about.”

Ruefully, Denk observes, “One thing no one teaches you is how much teaching resembles therapy.”

Tickets to Jeremy Denk’s recital are $55 and can be purchased at the Hahn Hall ticket office, by phone at 805.969.8787, or online at www.musicacademy.org.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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