Robert Spano and Jeremy Denk: Beyond the Notes

Spectacle Brass playing for
Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano.
Photo Credit: Joseph Greenway

Over the last several weeks, I have been incredibly blessed to experience masterclasses and performances by two of the greatest minds of our time: Robert Spano and Jeremy Denk.  During Denk’s lecture at the Bailey Center, he mentioned the importance of writing about what we do.  In light of this, I thought it would only be fitting to jot down a few words about both of these visionaries.  A difficult task to accomplish in few words, but I’ll do my best.

Robert Spano brings a kind of intensity to a room that is truly unexplainable.  As part of his residency at Kennesaw State University, he worked in a public masterclass with several chamber groups, including Spectacle Brass. Spano has conducted the world’s greatest orchestras and collaborated with soloists that have changed the face of music today, so perhaps one would expect him to spend time coaching perfection.  The answer: yes, but not really.  Spano approached every ensemble with a pair of metaphoric eyeglasses; melodic lines floating over harmonic planing was discussed for its rhetoric…to be found in every note.  Conversations were made rather than lectures given.  The greatness of Bach experienced rather than simply thought.  The more captivating the tale, the more thrilling the music.  And the perfection?  Somehow, the more time spent enjoying the crazy stories in each piece made every group play 10 levels higher.

Jeremy Denk has worked with Spano on multiple occasions, not to mention they both are accomplished concert pianists.  But during Denk’s masterclass, that word came up once again: rhetoric.  In fact, Denk had quite an interesting discussion on the literature (i.e. Shakespeare) he reads and applies to his music making.

In many “academic” settings, some seem to learn certain key phrases designed to help students, but ultimately don’t use their own advice.  Jeremy Denk’s evening solo performance was without a doubt the polar opposite.  He often conducted himself, looked around the room and up at the ceiling, and simply couldn’t have been enjoying the experience of Mozart more.  Moments passed where I literally didn’t believe the piano existed as in instrument— we were just in a room listening to Jeremy sing tales of love and lost, life and death, and wild adventures through time.  And let’s be honest– two hours of solo piano music from memory tends to become stale quickly, right?  Not with Denk.  Few performances have ever captured my attention more.

This past week I spent some time listening to a few of my own recent performances.  After going through some 10 tracks, I begin making a list of my “inconsistencies” — things I hated.   But then I realized this was an awful approach, after all, neither Spano or Denk ever expressly spoke of mistakes or inconsistencies.  I immediately began going back through some of my playing and discovered I need to notice ‘interesting’ playing.  Not perfect, not flawless….interesting.  You know what?  More often than not my most interesting playing has far fewer “missed notes” than the rest.  Those recordings I cringed at?  I was cringing at the bad notes, when I should have been cringing at the absence of rhetoric.

My teacher Doug Lindsey and I have been working through a 20th century work for unaccompanied trumpet.  Once again, I discovered I’ve been spending far too much time “perfecting” and not nearly enough time imagining.  As he will attest, we’ve been coming up with some crazy stories recently– and my playing continues to become more interesting because of it.

My recommendation: forget that your instrument constantly tells you that you’re not good enough.  Show your horn that what’s in your head is what you want your audience to hear.  Let go.  That cliff contains centuries of slate from the world’s greatest storytellers.

-JTB
johnthomasburson.com

Press release on Robert Spano’s KSU residency:
http://www.kennesaw.edu/arts/COTA_News/2012/10-23-13_spano_residency.shtml

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar