TAFTO 2008 Contribution: Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk doesn’t want much in his concerts, just “decorum and disorder, ecstatic chaos and reverent awe” (and perhaps the king of all food fights). Before you twist your mind too far around all of that just accept that Jeremy’s article is one of the most singular TAFTO contributions yet and I deny anyone who reads his contribution to walk away without a different perspective on classical music and the live concert event.  I could go on but you have your reading cut out for you today and I don’t want to spoil any of what lies ahead…

Jeremy Denk
Jeremy Denk

I have a terrible confession to make. When I was 13 or so, I loved to watch chess tournaments on PBS. Shelby Lyman, I believe, was the host of these programs, and they were surprisingly campy. On the particular fateful day that I’m thinking of, for instance, Tim Rice (frequent librettist for Andrew Lloyd-Webber) appeared as guest authority, on the basis of his musical “Chess.” I not only watched, but taped, this program; puberty was wreaking havoc on my judgement. Right afterwards, a Verdi opera, Falstaff, came on; I let the VCR record this too. Of course I didn’t know from Falstaff, but whoa dude! I was entranced, delighted, smitten; I sat, glued, inches from the grainy screen, and watched while my mother yelled at me to vacuum my room or something; and when the final fugue happened and all the characters in the last joyous bars vanished from the stage leaving merely the empty forest landscape, leaving the impression that it had all been a beautiful dream … well, I was beside myself, a happy happy tween. 84-year-old Verdi had come, perhaps in the nick of time, to rescue 13-year-old me from associates of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Here’s the moral of this story. I had all this Verdi on low-quality VHS and I bubbled to my parents about it. They’re music lovers, and I was sure they would love it as much as I did. But, having sat them down … well, it didn’t seem to make an impression. My father perhaps dozed off? I don’t exactly recall. My mother seemed a bit bored. Alas, it was the wrong moment, it was poorly chosen! This is a vivid memory of mine:  Sharing what you Love is sometimes a hazardous proposition. Also:  13-year-old enthusiasms, for good reason, are not always taken seriously.

This issue comes up, naturally, in relation to the Take your Friend to the Orchestra Initiative. Love for Music is such a vulnerable, personal thing; it is fragile, changeable; it is hard to share. Any one concert is not going to do justice to it; it may in fact seem diametrically opposed to it; you must be prepared for disappointment.

I suppose one of the first things I would do for a new concertgoer is confess to them that I am also often bored at concerts. A piece in a concert can seem like an animal cooped in a cage:  desperate to get out. Often these days, I look around those grand, gilded rooms with the rows of chairs all tidy and neat, and childhood urges come back to me:  a preschool dining table, and the beautiful desire to upend everybody’s plate and have the king of all food fights. I think splattering a major orchestra with banana creme pie would be an excellent start, for something. But what? Could this irreverence, paradoxically, prevent people from thumbing their Blackberries during the slow movement of Beethoven’s 4th Concerto? Because despite the flying pie I want music still to reign; I want there to be decorum and disorder, ecstatic chaos and reverent awe, all at once.

This last sentence brings me back to Falstaff. Because in its final act we have a performance that exists for its unraveling:  it is a combination of tender beauty, irony, humor, violence, terror, deception, you name it:  a performance that proceeds according to a pre-existing plan, but depends absolutely upon accident. The Merry Wives of Windsor have convinced fat Falstaff that he is to meet the beautiful Meg at the magic oak; he is to have a romantic, moonlit midnight rendezvous out there with her. This oak is also the subject of a local legend; it is said to be haunted by the fairies, and that to look upon them is death. Midnight is the hour of the fairies, by “coincidence.” For it is all a scam; the entire town is in upon it (except for Falstaff):  they all dress up as spirits and are going to scare the hell out of the fat fool, once and for all.

Falstaff is the performer, then? Everyone is there to watch him, to see how it will turn out for him, how he will be humiliated. But he is also the audience, for the scam that the townspeople are putting on. The scam, finally, is harmless; its end result is knowledge. They do not plan to imprison him, to do anything permanent, or misery-inducing; they just want him to be exposed to himself. This truth-telling must occur, paradoxically, in a scene of pure fantasy … fantasy is required in order to know the truth.

Everything is double-edged. The townspeople, one realizes, are not just there to trick Falstaff. They enjoy the playacting as well; it is a celebration for them. (Performance as celebration and deception, simultaneously.) So the joy has a (wicked, clever) purpose, but it is also pure frivolity, a lot of effort for what could be achieved in a much simpler way, a weird mixture of waste and intention:  a perfect metaphor for art.

Encased in this giant joke is a jewel of beauty:  the aria of the queen of the fairies. This is how the performance really gets going, this is how they convince Falstaff of their show, of the supernatural:  he hears the fairies singing; they terrorize him with a lullaby. As Nanetta sings, everyone becomes an audience to her:  Falstaff and the whole town, together, punished and punishers. (Falstaff cowered on the ground, clinging to the oak …) The grouping of the spectator and the audience has changed, and Beauty is the magnetic field arranging them. Audience and performer, Verdi tells us, are not merely functions of who buys a ticket! (We have all bought tickets for our own unmasking.) This central, convincing part of the wily ruse is also the purest, most innocent kind of beauty, something absolutely free of guile, a heart of gold. In other words, the proof of the lie is truth. The liars (and everyone in this drama is a liar of some sort), convinced of the truth of this beauty, watch it raptly, sing along.

Verdi’s setting is astounding; it sits at a certain classical remove, almost beyond style. At the refrain of the aria, he brings in the chorus:  and he adds just a few extra bars at the end, one of the most beautiful, simplest codas every written, a kind of echoing, or a blanket wrapped around the soprano’s voice, a shimmering aura around it. This aura, this choral coalescence, is the perfect musical metaphor for the idea that we have all gathered around this musical moment, around this hush like a hearth, around the pure beauty of song.

From that moment on the Performance begins its process of unraveling. The various performers gradually unmask themselves:  each act runs its course, to be revealed as fantasy … Falstaff is punished by the crowd, but then recognizes the drunken scent of his former servant, and turns the table on him; all his dupers then get all their joy out of revealing themselves; they drink up their schadenfreude. But that is not all! Ford, the jealous husband, becomes the audience for his own humiliation:  he is a performer, whether he knows it or not. Various other tricksters and poseurs are exposed, until finally there is no more audience, no more watched and watcher. At this moment, Verdi writes a fugue:  a musical symbol of “Equality of Voices,” a communal song, if you will, without hierarchy. Yes, we are all clowns. Everyone is performing, and so everyone is audience as well:  audience to their own folly, which they observe and celebrate.

The final act of Falstaff, then, provides several beautiful interlaced paradigms for listening, and for performing. One could propose two poles of listening:  one is Nanetta’s aria, where you are drawn, entranced, silenced, immobilized by beauty; the other is the final fugue where all the voices are in a constant process of listening and responding, where song is not immobilizing but gives way to active participation. In concerts these days, we are supposed to sit still, and take it all in, we are supposed to be mesmerized. Our chairs want us to be confined, but we are not. Our minds are racing, our lives are going on (they do not stop, they are merely overlaid with the concert) … and we are fighting ourselves to feel immobilized by beauty rather than simply stuck in our seats. Why do we fight so hard? We want to join in the lusty, communal shout, in the fugue of the happening; that is part of music too.

An ideal concert might be like the last act of Falstaff:  a giant joke, tinged with magic, sometimes very affecting, in which truths are revealed and love is requited, temporarily. Or, you might propose that the classical concert is an assembly of clowns:  the performers in their outfits, with their neuroses and demands; the board members in their finest, with their expectations and desires; all the various audience members, bringing their agendas and days to bear:  all of us clowns trying to sit still for 2 hours of music. Out of this massive delusion, in which everyone, to some extent, is a performer—make no mistake—there must be some unmasking, some truth-telling.

Which led me to these thoughts:

Suppose I am playing piece X. In my first week with a piece, the “wonder week,” I am its audience. The pages, the composer’s notes, sit in front of me, iconic performers. I look on them, I applaud. The notes are always more interesting, more intriguing, than I first imagined. They ramble around my brain, freely, as if it were a stage set.

Like the Merry Wives of Windsor, the notes deceive and entangle me. I find myself doing love-struck things, dancing around the practice room in frustration and pleasure, yelling “that is so great” after I hideously mangle some fantastic passage. It has very little to do with me, at that period. My best-laid plans seem unfortunate, then best-laid again. Certain quirky asymmetrical phrases of Mozart, for instance:  you decide that the phrase is going here (with a capital H) but when you get there you suddenly realize that it has already been going somewhere else. And these little beautiful puzzles, hiding everywhere in the music, don’t exist merely (or mainly) to be solved.

You would never want to hear any of that dubious, searching, stumbling piano playing … but I wish I could distill some essence of my thoughts of that time and sprinkle it over every performance that I give. Because, as the weeks creep on, learning a piece, I become more the performer and less the audience. Like Falstaff, I begin to delude myself, to take on airs, to believe that I in fact “know something” about the piece, that the piece goes “this way” and not “that way;” I become that deadly word, an “interpreter;” in my search for truth, inevitably the delusions multiply. And I must unmask myself, reveal myself, accept myself as mere audience again, if my performance is to be worth anything.

Falstaff suggests that performance is a chance to unmask ourselves. Immersed in the stress of our lives, like a bottle, we are not always willing to let the air in. But this amazing music has a way of sneaking around your defenses, of tricking you … As if  … indulge me for a moment … you were in your house, on a summer evening, on the top floor, concentrating, and it (the music) sneaks in the backdoor and begins to creep around the ground floor; safe in your room, you hear its creaking on your floorboards, along with the sound of crickets. And you wonder, is this sound a burglar or is it my long-lost lover? There is only one way to find out.

– Jeremy Denk

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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1 thought on “TAFTO 2008 Contribution: Jeremy Denk”

  1. This skirts but doesn’t directly deal with what I’m increasingly feeling as the central paradox of attending a concert. It’s fundamentally such a one-way transaction. Sitting in the audience, I receive such an intense influx of energy, passion, emotion, etc., and I give nothing back except rapt attention and appropriately timed applause. I know performers say they feed off the energy and expectation of the audience, but there’s still a huge imbalance. Sometimes at a really generous concert it feels like too much—like I’ll overflow or explode if I can’t do something. (At times like this I’ve been known to applaud between movements when I simply couldn’t help it [even at one of Mr. Denk’s concerts, sorry]). “We want to join in the lusty, communal shout, in the fugue of the happening,” is exactly what I mean. But how? You can’t respond as freely as you would at a rock or jazz concert without impairing the performance (and being murdered by the audience). And tempting though it is, I don’t think throwing a banana creme pie is the solution either. I’d guess this need to turn the concert into a two-way conduit is a reason so many people fall in love with a performer as though they had an actual relationship with him. But become a stalker probably isn’t the best solution either.

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