Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

(Re)Think Denk

June 13, 2009

Jeremy Denk on stage in Ojai
Photo: Jeff 2009

I arrived in Ojai on Saturday for this year’s installment of the legendary music festival with too little sleep and too much work to do, but it’s hard to feel pressured in this beautiful setting and around so many people interested in new(er) music. My festival kicked off with the afternoon solo performance from pianist, blogger, and über-cutey Jeremy Denk. He fits in well this year with a festival organized by contemporary ensemble eighth blackbird. And, while much of the music in this year’s programs is familiar to the festival audience, there is definitely a younger hipster flair to the proceedings when compared to recent seasons, although the festival clearly maintains its casual California vibe. So, while the song remains the same, the performers may represent a newer generation for a digital era. Denk himself, for example, comes off as less studied and more laid back than, say, Pierre-Laurent Aimard who graced these same stages just two years ago.

Denk started his program with Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 1 and gave a significant introduction to the piece from the stage beforehand, joking that he hoped his morning coffee would kick in while he was talking. It must have, considering how muscular and energetic the Ives came off. Denk cast the work as semi-programmatic evoking a young man who has left the rural New England farm of his childhood for wild city life while the old folks at home pine over memories of the past. It’s Ives at his iconoclastic best, wheeling through melodies and structures as if on a bender until reaching a discordant and unresolved ending. It was thoughtful and energetic playing from Denk, and warmly received by the audience. The best thing about Ives is how shocking his music still seems after all these decades. He's the musical equivalent of Walf Whitman, and Denk left no question as to the importance of this work.

I was less taken with the performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that filled the second half of the show. Denk started off still in full-bore Ives mode seemingly flying from pillar to post with somewhat aggressive strokes and almost caricaturish flourishes. I never sensed the inner measured workings of the piece or the fleet but light spirited turn of phrase that should permeate throughout. It was big and bold, but not necessarily great. Still, Denk can’t be faulted for not having a point of view. It was never lazy playing. But as anyone who has ever read his blog can testify, Denk is not one to do anything without some thought, be it serious or not.


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