Things happen, life happens, directions veer and sway, paths blur and whir like blades of a fan, your best lays go agley, and overall let me put it this way: you have no idea what will happen next. This can even be true in the boring Classical world.

I had plans, magnificent plans! I was playing a four-hand work with a certain music director of the San Francisco Symphony (anonymous of course), a beautiful slow movement which is one of those marvels of Mozartean simplicity. But, content on the reprise I was not. I yearned, the second time around, to fill its basic intervals with elaborations, like a chocolate bar with nougat, and said music director encouraged me at our first rehearsal, averring that by historical accounts Mozart ornamented heavily … that it was “like Chopin.” Haha. I barely need encouragement in general, in almost every facet of my existence, so watch out! The next day, submerged in the pit under the Davies stage, I spent my “practice breaks” concocting ornaments… like Christmas ornaments really: some quite cheesy, some unnecessary, some beautiful, some graceful, some edible (?) and some making you wish you had never come home for Christmas at all. I laughed and giggled and generally ridiculously entertained myself, which calls to mind the magnificent line of Homer Simpson: “But I was getting lonely being happy all by myself.”

The point was I was going to be an audacious ornamenter, and catch Anonymous Music Director by surprise onstage, etc. I used just a few of my ornaments at our dress rehearsal, and even this mere sampling elicited the following remark: “Jeremy, what have you been smokin’ the last few days?” This I considered a success; yes, it’s a slightly different kind of success from what most people yearn for, but we all set our bars in different places, so to speak. So, anyway, I was feeling very pleased with myself, but as usual, the first night I didn’t really have (to use the vernacular) the cojones to do everything I had planned; I did some things but couldn’t go “all the way.”

The second night, there we were in front of a couple thousand people again, and I was ornamenting away, self-satisfied, and we got to the second half, where I play this little new theme in D major, all alone:

Yes, it’s a very nice theme. And after my little treble “solo,” very adorably the bottom part is supposed to play the same thing in a bass-ish kind of way, and it’s all very cute and humorous. Now, only later I came to understand the motivation behind what happened next. Apparently, I played my theme that evening particularly Puckishly and optimistically, like a kind of “in the mist” fantasy of treble frequencies, and this music director had had it with my demonstrative happiness. Instead of the major mode, then, the music director played his version in a sober, sad minor, something like “Let me tell ya somethin’ punk, you need to learn something about life”:

A whole different MODE??!?@?!@?# Of course I had been outdone. The smallest smile spread on his face; he turned his head ever so slightly towards me, smugly. All my dreaming of surprising the Anonymous Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and he had trumped me, magnificently. I consoled myself: of course, we were playing on his turf; he had the “home court” advantage. Let him come to the Greystone Hotel in New York City and try that kind of garbage! But, the rest of that sweet little tender piece, playing my pretty melodies, I was skewered on irony: I had to just stew there and emote happily in the knowledge that I had been outimprovised, beaten at my own game, hoisted by my own petard, and a host of other clichés that we don’t need to mention.

Perhaps still suffering from the trauma of this incident, which you can well imagine (any good therapists out there?), I found myself in Portland, Maine, playing a rather meaty recital consisting of the 4th Partita of Bach, the last Sonata of Beethoven, and the Liszt Sonata. I was in elbow deep in Liszt; I had just rounded the climax of the slow movement (from which the following sound file begins), and well I was basking its afterglow.

Liszt Sonata Excerpt, Portland Maine 11/16/06:

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(The sound quality is not unbelievable… you will need to turn it up?) Everything seemed to be going fine. It had been a busy November; perhaps I was a bit tired, and I thought for a moment, at a thorny chromatic descent, that I had played an incorrect accidental… though I hadn’t. The cover-up is often worse than the crime. The non-existent imaginary mistake derailed me. I corrected the non-mistake, and suddenly I was descending through clouds of the totally wrong harmonies and who knew what dissonances might result, where I might land? A musical, cognitive free-fall. Somehow I landed on the dominant of B major which would have ended the piece, well, rather too soon. Heh. It was a tempting thought… but no.

Remember I was in the afterglow, and I was so shocked that my brain went into a strange frenzy. I remember thinking, with one sector of my brain, “You’re supposed to be in F# major, you [expletive].” Another sector was curiously devoid of harmonic thinking and could only offer up a melodic fragment it knew to be true:

But in the wrong key. My melodic and harmonic minds diverged. You don’t have great presence of mind at those moments. Now, you can hear me try out the melodic fragment a few times, and settle on F# major, as a foundation (at the very least); and my favorite part is when, out of ideas, I play a sort of wistful little F#-major arpeggio, which tries to stand in for a whole Lisztian resolution… pathetically… as if to say, that’s all I’ve got, folks! I play it with a certain sincerity, a kind of tender offering of complete and total nonsense. Luckily at that moment of crisis, I suddenly grab onto a high C major scale… a swimmer finding shore…

The incident occurs 55 seconds in. By 1:10, we are free and clear, back to our regularly scheduled programming. You can stop listening, or whatever; it’s a free country. But I included more of the performance, because, by the mysterious totally emotional ridiculous logic of performing, the unnerving effect of this memory moment caused me to take the ensuing fugue unbelievably fast, almost as if I wanted to derail myself again. Haha, you won’t make it, I seem to be saying to myself; but: I do. I am satisfied that the result is demonic and wild; the fugue is, yes, too fast, but I’m glad that it hovers on the unplayable; you never know … even failure, or doubt, can inspire.

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  1. hari
    Posted November 27, 2006 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    oh, that reminds me of when i was acting and horrors, we’d forget lines, improvising our brains out. worse, even, we’d be going along and realize that we left out whole parts of dialogue. sometimes mistakes like that can really send your adrenalin going and you become more alive when you have to figure out a way to get out of the twilight zone mess.

    at least you rose above it all and swam. it’s really awful when people just freeze on stage.

  2. monica
    Posted November 27, 2006 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    ooof, that fugue!! hair-raising, ridiculous, but brilliant. love the mini-accelerandos sprinkled throughout the beginning of it, as if felt you weren’t in deep-doodoo enough already. but you pull it off man, bravo, you nut!

  3. neurotic and lo
    Posted November 28, 2006 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    oh, so THAT’s why you went to the parallel minor when we were reading the other day, you shit!



  4. Anonymous
    Posted November 28, 2006 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    I was at the concert on 11/11 and noticed there was this funny dynamic between you two where you often looked toward him, but he didn’t look back. so thanks for the little behind-the-scenes story…

  5. ACN
    Posted November 29, 2006 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Denk,

    I’m an American pianist studying in Berlin, and I love reading your blog not only as a pianist, but also as a fellow blogger. Unfortunately, my stories aren’t nearly as exciting as yours. I do remember a similar incident, once, while playing the Liszt Dante Sonata in San Francisco (an interesting combination of your two experiences here), of feeling ecstactic glory over nailling those two horrible pages of octaves and then plunging into a harmonic bog of mist and uncertainty and definitely the wrong key. It’s like…hmmm, how’d I get here, (getting frantic now) you !@&*$%&#^&!!!!!!

    Long live cliches. I myself have a thing for adjectives while writing my own blog.

    All the best.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted November 29, 2006 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    wow, that is a SUICIDAL speed. congrats on pulling that off! you’re awesome!

  7. Anonymous
    Posted November 30, 2006 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    yeah, so by “speed,” i meant tempo. sorry guys, that was lame. i guess i was momentarily blown away!

  8. Emily
    Posted November 30, 2006 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Musical sparring with MTT—love it. He always seems to have something mischievous rattling around behind that seemingly tranquil veneer. You seemed to be doing a fine job of holding your own.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted December 1, 2006 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    from a fellow blogger/pianist in Northern NY: thanks for the fantastic Bach last evening. The fire alarms went off far too early: the real smoke came from the playing!

  10. Kelsey
    Posted December 1, 2006 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Love your storytelling style. I found this entry particulary hilarious. As a music student, I understand exactly the enjoyment you found in “concocting ornaments”. It is a different kind of mischief artist enjoy, isn’t it?

  11. Anonymous
    Posted December 1, 2006 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Hey, just saw the ad in the paper for your upcoming concert gig at Carnegie Hall. Sorry I can’t make it…I live in Albuquerque. It was wonderful seeing you in the paper, though!!

  12. Anonymous
    Posted December 1, 2006 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    I just saw the ad in the NY Times for your upcoming concert at Carnegie Hall. WOW! I read your blog as often as I can. It’s great to see you in the paper. One of these days I’ll see you live, but as I am in Albuqueruqe, it’s not going to be soon…

  13. Anonymous
    Posted December 2, 2006 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    So, I’m reading the Dec 4th issue of The New Yorker, and suddenly see the name Jeremy Denk mentioned as a pianist. Of course, it has to be the same Jeremy Denk I went to high school with.

    It’s good to see you’re doing well for yourself as a musician. I missed you at the 20th high school reunion (although it really wasn’t an event worth attending.) I wish you all the continued best with your life and career.

    -Graham Ames

  14. Anonymous
    Posted December 5, 2006 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Okay, I did a search on you a couple of years ago and knew then that I wanted to see a performance but then, when do I ever get to New York? (Never) I’m from New Mexico, it’s clear across the country; well, practically. So now, I have a trip to New York (my first) and I don’t see it on your concert schedule when I’m going to be there (12/28 – 1/3)…

    It’s absolutely necessary after hearing your sample on this blog.

    History: I was a student in your dad’s literature class (I can’t remember which particular class, it was ten years ago) at New Mexico State. He was bragging about you (in a humble way) so I mentioned you to my sister and she remembered you. You were 13 when she knew you from the Newman Center and had an interesting story that I relayed to Joe (aka your dad) and he told me another interesting story. If you’re interested in the interesting stories and in letting me know how I can see a performance you can e-mail me at If not, I guess I’ll just buy a cd 🙁

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