Two mornings ago I woke up in an absurdly cozy room, all quilt and nook and alcove. Snow was sort of aimlessly wandering around the air outside. I faced a daunting to-do list:

1. Futile nine hundredth attempt to master, once and for all, the impossible passages in Ades’ Lieux Retrouves. (Somewhat urgent, as the concert is that day.)

2. Make progress on my libretto, possibly the first and last opera ever written about musical analysis. (Hilariously urgent).

3. Practice the Bartok Sonata, the Liszt Dante Sonata, etc. etc. Revisit the fundamental laws of piano playing.

4. Continue to develop script for video liner notes about the Goldberg Variations, avoiding the terrible pitfalls of pretension and boredom and gosh-golly oversimplification.

5. Annoy Steven Isserlis.

There are high-priority items on this list. But as anyone who has come into contact with Steven will I’m sure attest, the last item is the easiest, and the most fun. I made it my first order of business; annoying one’s colleagues is an important part of any profound musical relationship. (Longtime readers may remember this.)

As it happens, the place where Steven and I were staying is hosted by a lovely generous woman named Doris who, as I learned from a previous stay, makes incredibly weak coffee. You can sort of infer the weakness of the coffee from the calmness and coziness of the cottage she runs. It’s part of the whole gestalt of the place. Knowing this crucial piece of information, I brought my own kettle and cone and filters and a small Ziploc bag of ground beans. How else is one to withstand Oberlin in early February, at the epicenter of winter?

I brought just enough beans for one person (myself) to make it through two mornings. Let me make this absolutely clear: I could have brought more, but I did not. Now cut, after ablutions, and me padding down two flights of creaky stairs in stocking feet, to a scene where Steven and I are sitting across from each other at a big wooden table. My kettle is humming away behind me. I am slowly then pouring hot water over my beans while Doris brews Steven some of her trademark brew.

Probably you don’t even need me to tell you how this turns out. I couldn’t have really planned it better. I lift my cup to my lips, it’s quite delicious, I smack my lips in appreciation. Meanwhile Steven is taking his first sip of Doris’ coffee. The look on his face: a sculpted masterpiece of resentment. My ongoing cries of pleasure. Steven’s whispered hisses. My giggles. Doris coming in to offer Steven more coffee. Mmm, I say, marvelous coffee, downing the last of my mug. It was musical, predestined, collaborative, part of an endless series of irritations I have visited upon Steven over time, like Bach’s explorations of all the iterations of harmony and counterpoint.

What’s so satisfying about Steven is that once he grabs hold of some injustice, he gnaws on it for days, months, years. He mentioned my coffee behavior to everyone we met later that day, professors who don’t care, random staff, outreach coordinators, page-turners, whatever and whoever, he wanted everyone to know. But the wonderful thing is, I think all of them, having met Steven, understood exactly why I did it, and why I’d do it (with love in my heart) again and again and again.

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  1. Genevieve Jones
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    I think now I have consumed enough coffee over my lifetime to start to be able to tell good from bad.

  2. mruffing
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Why, thank you for the new post.

  3. Steven Isserlis
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Your enjoyment of my very real sufferings is touching, Jeremy. Moving, really. It wasn’t so much the lack of decent coffee that got to me (although that was of course painful). It was more having to witness – at breakfast-time, mind you, on a cold morning – the sublimely irritating look of self-satisfaction on your face as you sipped, and the utter joy (which some would save for greater things – a child’s first smile, for instance) which irradiated your early-morning features as I experienced my first taste of Doris’s dishwater. Anyway, they say that musicians need to suffer in order to deepen their art; so I suppose I should thank you. But curiously – I don’t.


  4. Janet
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    The “Diary of Medtner Piano Quintet” entry was the first thing I thought of reading this–because of Mr. Isserlis’s response. Given that he pacified you by bringing you fresh Cornish coffee every morning, this seems a most ungentle response.

  5. Stephen Hough
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    This is so funny, Jeremy. I have been chuckling all day long!

  6. jean
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Wondering if Doris thought “Uh Oh, seems like I always have to scrape together every grain of coffee in the bottom of the can every time he comes….the delivery man still has not showed up yet….Better not asking him how he likes his coffee….”.

    Live and learn. Glad you came all prepared, even for a cup of coffee which makes you going. I like to make my own coffee too. I’m not sure Mr. Isserlis would bring a kettle, a cone, a filter, and coffee in the Ziploc bag like you. My suggestion is the individual ready made coffee packets, just ask Doris for some hot water. But maybe more fun to boil the water yourself….

  7. anna martina sodari
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    it’s always fun to go to a birthday party of one of olive’s young schoolmates from the waldorf school. the school attracts free-minded thinking parents. one mother said at one party, ‘it’s alway so funny what (her daughter’s name) will pick up. i said ‘there’s nothing worse than see-through coffee’ and she’s been saying that all week.’ i use the french coffee press. i like to put cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg in the first cup, so chai coffee, and then i put the rest in the fridge to chill so that i can have iced mocha coffee the next day. i’m glad marshalls carries the ‘hawaiian gold’ brand, it’s a great coffee bean. back in 2000 when my apache helicopter pilot friend was in honduras, i asked him to send me some coffee for my son. my bro, who served air force in panama, told me that they couldn’t get coffee out because the aroma covered the scent of the drugs so the dogs couldn’t sniff it out. i got my coffee, the box was ripped and taped over when i got it. i don’t know how my friend got it out after what my bro told me. they train special forces and navy seals in honduras, my bro told me. several months later i told one of my son’s friends that he went to high school with that it was hard to find a gift that would impress him. she said, ‘oh, you did it with that coffee . . . .’ it was the same helicopter friend that flew richard holbrook around to his meetings in bosnia when he was stationed there.

  8. jean
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I bet Mr. Denk drinks a dark coffee. Someday, I’ll be drinking it dark too. I used to put three pkgs of sugar, three or four shots of 1/2&1/2 cream into my coffee. Yeah, cinnamon too. Now I only brew half a cup of strong coffee then fill the mug up with whole milk.

    I think real artists only drink dark coffee.

  9. Posted February 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    This post brightened my day! Thank you, thank you.

  10. Anne S
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Actually I have been wondering what was going on in the Isserlis world recently. At a NYC recital 2 weeks ago, he had us waiting around for a while before he made his stage appearance. He of course provided a strange explanation that involved some people banging on a bathroom door. But I do wonder now if it wasn’t the Doris effect! Regardless, he went on to blow our minds with the F major sonata.

    I myself recommend the Beethoven recipe: Sixty beans a cup.

  11. jean
    Posted February 10, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Suddenly I can not practice my scales without thinking of Doris….Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do Ri Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do Ris!!!!!!!

  12. ebet dudley
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Good example of Gluckschmerz, the opposite of Schadenfreude.
    BTW your Liszt was sublime and reduced me to jelly. Jolly inspiring master class, too! Thank you for trudging down again to little Princeton.

  13. Y
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    This is totally random, but I must ask because I’ve been so looking forward to hear you in person(since Columbia Museum of Art announced their season last year)– are you still coming to Columbia, SC for chamber music concert on Valentine’s day? You were on the program, but then it looks like you are not anymore. I am so confused. . . I really hope you are still coming. Btw, I really enjoy reading your blog(almost as much as I enjoy listening to your Ligeti CD– I REALLY like your Ligeti etudes)! 🙂

  14. jean
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Being a nocturnal, sometimes I counted on the classical music to help me to fall asleep easier, but sometimes I got haunted by a certain pieces and stayed sleepless longer for a while thinking about it. This case, a guitar piece which I’d never heard before, not like I’m really into guitar…; in the end I couldn’t even get the name of the composer, or the performer, since they sounded unfamiliar to me. All I could catch was the name of the piece which sounded like ‘queenbaba’. The next day I had to find it. It’s Carlo Domeniconi’s ‘Koyunbaba’. I went to youtube and watched a bunch of different artists performed this piece which really touched my soul. I wish to hear the piano version of Koyunbaba by Mr. Denk someday….

  15. Justus Schlichting
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    You are wicked, sir. My heart goes out to the aggrieved Mr. Isserlis.

  16. jean
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Maybe this suffering will bring out another masterpiece for the cello from Mr. Isserlis . Can’t wait to hear it.

  17. evie kahn
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Today you signed your cd for me in Myrtle Beach after performing at the First Presbyterian Church. I bought the Ives cd and look forward to playing it. I am neither a critic nor a scholar of music, but I know when I am moved by a performance and today I was moved! The piano was singing and the music seemed to reach deep inside my brain and heart. It was a glorious experience, being transported that way. I will treasure the cd and am about to order the Ligeti and Beethoven one. I hope you will return to Myrtle Beach and I wish you all the success you so richly deserve. In awe, Evie Kahn

  18. Marian Zeletz
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Wearing the Cookie Monster hat would have been the coup de grâce.

  19. Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Anything that involves coffee is good. Anything that involves marvelous coffee is even better. Thanks for the smile.

  20. anna martina sodari
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    my right hip has been bothering me for some days, damn, i said, and then last night on the early morning classical radio station, she said that kurt masur broke his hip and they don’t know when he will be back on the podium, damn, again. i am way too empathic. my psychiatrist told me years ago that that was how the healer on ‘star trek next generation’ did it . . . . . i can’t remember what i was way too empathic about that time.

  21. jean
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  22. Posted February 28, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Priceless!! But you never know…Doris may enjoy a solitary morning in her lovely home, free of pesky guests. She could actually be a master of passive-aggressive manipulation, serving up the one sure-fire recipe she knows will get people the hell out of her kitchen. After everyone clears out, she busts out her bag of fresh espresso beans (hidden next to the chicken cutlets in her freezer), brews up a triple, puts her feet up and enjoys the morning paper while chuckling at the poor schlubs who think she doesn’t know a good cup of coffee. 😉 P.S. Love your blog; love your music.

  23. jim van sant
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Whatever happened to offering Mr Isserlis some of Mr Denk’s
    fine dark coffee? It is a godly thing to share fine coffee.
    I am uncomfortable with this blog; it is too self-centered; too many
    personal pronouns. Sounds like Leonard Slatkin’s blog – quel destin!
    And look what’s happened to Detroit!
    Back to being overly-egoccentric. Fascinating to the writer, of course,
    often gradually overcomes the reader with boredom. In oversimplified
    terms, what is interesting to the writer is not necessarily of interest to
    the reader, and as they fade away at some point you are left with an
    audience of one, Walt Whitman! Listen to me, Jeremy, a retired English
    teacher telling you what to do! Well, at least I am telling you how to
    play the piano.
    In order to find out how much of a man you really are, I have to hear
    you play the Chopin Ballade Op 23, No.1 in G-minor. Please keep that
    in mind when you are again before the microphones, as all you are
    playing here at your Noontime Recital is the Martha Stewart Variations
    (a big big mistake, since you have rained so superbly on their parade).
    You can redeem all this, in my view, by coming out after the Goldberg
    and playing that Ballade as an encore, a virtually impossible task. An
    old pianist Rudolf Firkusny could do it, but I don’t know about these
    sappy whelps today. You have left Oberlin a bit unhappy, you know!
    You may have to play the Ballade for them as atonement.
    Kind regards from, Mr M/SFE

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