Keyboard 'genius' Jeremy Denk to open Shriver Hall season

Jeremy Denk
The Baltimore Sun

The term “genius grant” isn’t officially attached to the $625,000 MacArthur Fellowships bestowed every year to people with “exceptional creativity,” but that tag emerged in popular conversation and stuck. No wonder. Each batch of recipients seems packed with unusually ingenious folks.

A case in point is pianist Jeremy Denk, a 2013 MacArthur winner who opens the Shriver Hall Concert Series this weekend at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (Shriver Hall is being renovated).

Born in North Carolina and based in New York, Denk has more than keyboard interests. During his undergraduate years at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, he double-majored in piano and chemistry.

He is also a dynamic, witty writer. He wrote the libretto for “The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts),” a 2014 comic work with music by Steven Stucky, inspired by the late pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen’s seminal study of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Denk’s writing has appeared in the likes of The New Yorker and The Guardian, not to mention his blog, “Think Denk,” which the Library of Congress added to its Performing Arts web archives. But that blog has been dormant for several years. What’s up with that?

“Everyone asks that question,” Denk, 47, says. “I have focused what writing energy I have on a book. I’ve figured out what it is and why I’m writing it. I have a lot of material I’ve been shaping into chapters. It seems to be going well. And then I have this piano playing.”

To cap his Baltimore recital, Denk will tackle Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes.
“There is a manic joy to this music,” Denk says. “And the Etudes are so virtuosic. They really show Schumann’s outrageous imagination.”

The earlier part of the pianist’s program will offer Mozart’s bittersweet Rondo in A minor; Prokofiev’s “Visions fugitives,” a collection of 20 short, misty works; and one of Beethoven’s last sonatas, No. 30 in E major, Op.109.
“The Mozart and Prokofiev and Beethoven pieces flowed into each other in a way that I liked,” Denk says. “They are not obviously declaring anything, if you know what I mean, but are looking for something. These are pieces that are not obvious. The Prokofiev work is all fragments, creating an unusual sound world. [Beethoven’s Op.] 109 is also basically all fragments; he’s trying to assemble something out of them.”

Beethoven has figured in some of Denk’s previous Baltimore-area appearances — a pearly, colorful account of Piano Concerto No. 5 last year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Adams; the last of the 32 sonatas, played in 2006 at Evergreen House.
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