Denk, Bell, Isserlis: Conflict and Resolution in a Star-Powered Trio


On CM's weekly interview-based show Beyond the Stage, we spoke with pianist Jeremy Denk. The Winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship as well as the Avery Fisher Prize, Denk performs frequently as a soloist at Carnegie Hall and in recent seasons has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has 20 released albums, including his most recent release on Nonesuch records called 1300-2000, which traces 700 years of music history. Listen this 16-minute interview with Denk on his upcoming trio performance with Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis, his newest album release, the role of reading and writing in his life, his opinion on the development of personal musical taste, the difference between good and great composers, and more.

Here are a few highlights from the interview:

AP: I want to start by focusing on your upcoming performance here in Boston. On Sunday April 28th, you’ll be performing with your trio members Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis in Symphony Hall as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. The three of you have been connected as friends and colleagues for awhile. My first question for you is: How did the­ three of you meet? And what qualities do you think enabled you, Bell, and Isserlis to work so effectively together?

JD: (laughs). Well, the meeting is complicated. I met Joshua first at the Spoleto Festival. We played a gala together in, I believe, 2004. But before that, Joshua’s mother had been anxious that we play together, because I was a student at Indiana University Bloomington after Joshua left. She heard me and thought we might be compatible players. A mother’s will is often very strong. It took a little while, but after Spoleto, we ended up doing recital tours for 7 or 8 years together.

Joshua and I are very different in some ways and very similar in others. We both love the storytelling element of music-making. We want to make sure that the audience is drawn into the suspense and the thrill of the piece. And we bring our different perspectives on how to do that. We’ve worked together for so long; we’ve argued about everything under the sun. So we know so much about each other.

Steven and I...I forget exactly when we met, but it was at another music festival in Cornwall called Prussia Cove. We got along personally, because we’re both fans of irony, and we also got along musically. And Josh and Steven had been friends. So it was inevitable that the three of us play together.

AP: Sometimes, star-powered chamber groups comprised of strong soloists don’t necessarily play cohesively together. How does your group manage to collaborate so well, given that you don’t devote your entire careers to chamber music?

JD:…Despite our differences, I think that we represent three different facets of the same passion. I think that’s really important, because a trio is different than a piano quintet. Every one of the trio players has to be a very strong individual. The music doesn’t work unless everyone has that sort of confidence. It’s different from a string quartet, where there’s a sense of blend. But a trio requires more sharply edged characters…

AP: You mentioned similarities and differences between you, Bell and Isserlis. What are some of those in terms of your musical styles and rehearsal styles, and do you ever have any conflicts?

JD: We have all kinds of conflicts, we argue constantly. But I think it’s productive. We find that often after a while grousing at each other, our agreements are more profound than our disagreements.

Steven has a beautiful way of knowing the architecture of a piece. He knows how long every phrase is, and what kind of phrase it is, and where the emphasis ought to be, like the grammar of the piece. And then Joshua is very attuned to the coloristic world, and the shifts in color, and also the sweep, which is quite a different element, and complements Steven. And I don’t know where I fit in all that, but I have lots of tricks of the trades that I like to apply. Like the little bits of imagination in each phrase to make them come alive. I hope I bring that to the table. It’s very complicated because we’re all very different players, so I have to find a way to be the moderator, the peace-maker. Although sometimes I encourage them to argue just so they don’t turn on me (laughs).

AP: Now I want to turn to your solo work. This year you just released your newest album called ca. 1300-2000 on Nonesuch Records. Many headlines read, “Jeremy Denk explains the entirety of western musical history through his new album!” So I wanted to ask you, what is your thinking behind the structure of this album, and what was the process like choosing which pieces from this vast history to include?

JD: Part of the impetus was a specific occasion. I was supposed to play at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, and they wanted a piano recital that was kind of more of a “happening” – not your “average” piano concert. In the meantime, I had been thinking a lot about classical music history, about how we’re standing at the far end of this incredible arc of musical thinking. How can we bring that whole arc, all those centuries, to life? I thought it would be amazing to hear it all in one evening, “all” being in quotation marks. For me, I wanted it to be not so much explaining but more like narrating an epic poem. For me, there’s lots of places where there’s incredible apotheoses – when a number of composers gather, and they get these insights, and they know how to bend music to their will to express something amazing. And then there are moments in between when people are figuring out how to go on after that, and they’re thinking, “what part of music do I rethink in order to create something new and relevant?” I wanted that feeling in the evening.

Allison Pao is a producer for WHRB Classical. On Sunday, April 28th, Jeremy Denk will be performing at Symphony Hall with his trio members Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. You can buy tickets here. This interview aired on Sunday, April 21st, at 4pm.