Pianist Jeremy Denk, the artistic director of this year’s 21st Annual Laguna Beach Music Festival, is a man with many musical appetites. Winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the Avery Fisher Prize, Denk brings a magpie-like curiosity to his programming choices.

In addition to household names such as Brahms, Bach and Beethoven, the three-concert series, presented on consecutive evenings from Feb. 17-19, features the music of maverick American composer Charles Ives; a monumental piano work by Blind Tom Wiggins, an eccentric 19th-century African American musical prodigy; and Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, a socially conscious work based on a folk song made famous by Lead Belly and Pete Seeger.

21st Annual Laguna Beach Music Festival

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Feb. 15-19. Festival Prelude party at 5 p.m. Feb. 15. Concerts at 8 p.m. Feb. 17-19.

Cost: Tickets start at $38

Contact: 949-553-2422 or lagunabeachmusicfestival.com

In addition to his wide-ranging tastes, Denk brings other considerations to his eclectic programming. “To some extent, I think some programs (can be) cathartic,” Denk said earlier this week in a Voice of OC interview. “I think it can be very important to create a kind of — I wouldn’t say a political, but a cultural commentary.”

The Feb. 18 concert, which combines the Wiggins and Rzewski pieces with Scott Joplin, mixed-race British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Bach, Schubert and Beethoven, is clearly thematic, though Denk didn’t want to make the message overt by talking about it.

Denk said he takes considerable care to ensure his programming choices make sense and create a synergy.

“If I can find a way to do it that is musically satisfying or interesting and creative to me, rather than a kind of propagandistic statement …” He laughed. “It’s very hard to program this kind of thing without getting a little over the top. But I hope that this (programming) works for people.”

Since music isn’t literally a language, its messages remain somewhat slippery, Denk said. 

“As listeners, we abstract ourselves from the present moment and all of its squabbles, and we (emerge from listening to music) refreshed. That’s also important. So I think there’s a case to be made for both relevant programming and irrelevant programming at times, you know what I mean? One of the great things about music is that it engages a lot of metaphoric possibilities and it doesn’t have to specify, and therefore they can all attach themselves to it.”

As a champion of musical mavericks, it’s not surprising that Denk has an affinity for the music of Ives, which he has pursued over the course of his career. The first concert, on Feb. 17, features two Ives sonatas for violin and piano, played by Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw. Complementing the sonatas, an a cappella vocal ensemble will sing popular hymns that influenced Ives’ works. Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano and his Regenlied from Lieder, Op. 59 are also on the program.

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Denk and Jackiw have performed Ives’ music frequently. “We’ve spent so many years of love and attention on these Ives sonatas,” Denk said of his collaboration with Jackiw. “We think they’re beautiful music, and they need to be heard more often, especially advocated by artists who have spent some time with them.”

Denk sees the Ives sonatas as intensely personal works for the composer. “They pretend in a way to be modern pieces, but he’s trying to recreate this remembered childhood — the music that he grew up with, his father’s cantankerousness and experimentation. There’s also … this kind of fervency that he felt was so important to music, whether it was expert or not. He wanted to recapture that sense of music’s presence and relevance and intensity.”

Denk has spent a lot of time thinking about what is perhaps the most monumental piece at the festival, Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111. It’s a late work, completed only five years before the composer’s death, that explodes the rules of sonata form, condensing Beethoven’s turbulent ideas into two complex movements. 

There’s evidence that Beethoven worked on ideas for the sonata as early as 1805, and his obsession makes itself felt from the start, Denk said.

“It’s full of a kind of a stop-and-start restlessness. And it’s creating that sense of a kind of desperate searching. And then creating these little bubbles where things seem to find a momentary epiphany or whatever, but then break apart. it’s like depicting someone who’s looking everywhere for something in the past, and not quite finding it.”

Denk said each time he performs the work, it presents itself to him in a new way. “It’s not an obvious journey. Things kind of unfold bit by bit in subtle weird ways. It’s always very different, every performance.”

Denk admitted he didn’t know anything about the origins of the work, but when he speculated about why Beethoven strived to make something completely new and original, Denk may as well have been describing his own multi-faceted career, which includes distinguished critical and personal writing about music as well as extensive concertizing and championing marginalized or forgotten composers.

“(Beethoven is) bored or unsatisfied with doing the same thing that he had been doing,” Denk said. “That is one of the things that we love about him — that he didn’t want to keep doing the same thing.” 

That restless curiosity, coupled with Beethoven’s progressive hearing loss, led him to unparalleled musical heights, Denk believes. “He gets more and more obsessed with these ineffable ideas, you know? Things he could imagine but couldn’t hear. It’s fascinating.” 

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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