Pianist Jeremy Denk says he never plays a composition the same way twice.
“A conductor I worked with in San Francisco asked me how I played a particular passage when we were playing Mozart last fall,” Denk said from his home in New York. “And I played it for him, then played it again and again. And he said, ‘Do you realize that you just played that three times, and each time it was different?’ ”
Denk has been a classical music aficionado for most of his life. His parents owned a number of classical records and had a piano in the house (though neither of them were musicians), and he requested to be enrolled in piano lessons when he was 5. He took to the instrument almost immediately, and an after-school activity quickly developed into a passion.
“The idea of quitting the piano never would have occurred to me,” Denk said. “It’s the primary way I communicate with the world. It was then, and it is now.”
After graduating from Ohio’s Oberlin College (where he double majored in music and chemistry), Denk went on to study piano at Indiana University (where he received a master’s degree in music) and Juilliard (where he received a doctorate in piano performance), and he won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 1997. He’s played with symphonies all over the world and is an accomplished writer, with essays about musical education and his own career appearing in Newsweek and the New Yorker.
This weekend, Denk will perform with the Spokane Symphony as part of their ongoing Classics series, joining the orchestra for an interpretation of French composer Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major.
“It’s an incredibly joyous piece fundamentally,” Denk said. “It’s a piece I’ve always loved, but I haven’t played it that much. I’ve been playing more German music, very serious stuff, and this is more of a French bonbon. It’s nice to be on that side of things and to be light and laughing.”
The musical themes of Ravel’s concerto were inspired by the booming popularity of jazz in America and Europe in the 1920s, and Denk likens it to George Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“European composers recognized something new and kind of wonderful in this music,” Denk said. “They transmuted jazz into classical music, and this is one of the most amazing and perfect examples of Ravel basically taking Gershwin and fusing it with his own lush sense of harmony.”
Although he’s not a jazz pianist, Denk says it’s a language he’s comfortable with. The sense of improvisation that typifies the genre seems to apply directly to Denk’s style of playing, which is to make a piece of music seem fresh every time his fingers hit the keys.
“Many of the things I love about music the most are the things that can’t be notated and that have to be brought by the performer,” Denk said. “I like to have the feeling that the piece has been written that morning or just a few minutes before you go onstage. That’s part of my musical personality.”