Jeremy Denk balances two keyboards as pianist and writer

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal arts writer

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Pianist Jeremy Denk, will perform for Tuesday Musical at E.J. Thomas Hall Tuesday, Feb. 4. He is the series' Margaret Baxtresser annual piano concert artist.

The self-deprecating pianist Jeremy Denk has a lot to say about music, not only through his live performances but also through his insightful writing for publications ranging from his blog to the New Yorker and Newsweek.

He keeps up an active performance schedule and a busy writing life, most recently focusing on his memoir, which will be published by Random House in 2015.

“It’s unusual to keep them both going and I can totally see why, because both jobs are very time-consuming and very neurosis-inducing,” Denk said by phone Thursday during a train ride back to New York from Penn State University. “So it’s actually like the worst of all possible worlds in some ways, like going from one keyboard to another,” he said with a laugh.

Denk, who last appeared in Akron with violinist Joshua Bell for a Tuesday Musical performance in 2010, will perform a solo recital Tuesday at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.

The 43-year-old said the English classes he loved at his alma mater, Oberlin College, remained in his blood even as he took a break from writing in his 20s to delve heavily into his piano career. Denk, who graduated from Oberlin in 1990, began his undergraduate degree there at the tender age of 16. He majored in both chemistry and piano performance, under the tutelage of Joseph Schwartz.

“There was a lot of panic, there was a lot of stress, there was a lot of spreading myself too thin, but a lot of it was like a laboratory while figuring out what I wanted to do,’’ Denk said of those days.

The musician, who went on to study piano at Indiana University and Juilliard, remembers clearly the moment in the lab his junior year when he realized he hated chemistry. But he says those science days weren’t wasted.

“I’m sure that the way you use your brain for science stays with me, in many ways because music is so emotional but it also has this kind of structure and abstraction that makes it possible for the emotions to speak,” he said.

After a friend pressed him to start a blog in 2004, he began Think Denk, which includes the humorous subtitle “the glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist.” The blog can be found at Think Denk, which recounts his experiences touring, performing and practicing, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives.

The blog has been quiet since last spring, Denk said, since “a lot of my material I would be spewing forth on the blog” will be used for his upcoming memoir. The basis for the memoir is “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” an article on piano lessons past that he wrote for the New Yorker in April 2013.

“I think it’s just a part of me to want to talk about music and also to try to get down in words in the simplest possible way what it is I love about it, about Mozart or Bach or whatever,” Denk said.

He has always been an avid reader, and said one of his fondest memories is of sitting in the square at Oberlin reading his literature assignments. He credits professor David Walker for teaching him how to be precise when explaining how a piece of literature works and what it does, a skill that he actively applies to his music.

“I had always wanted to write cleverly argued, stylish papers but I hadn’t really thought that much about whether I imagined that what I was saying was actually true” as a young college student, he said.

He has a new job description to add to his resume: He has written the libretto for the opera The Classical Style — inspired by the late musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen’s book of the same name, with music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky. The satirical opera, which includes Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven bored in heaven and Rosen as the overanalyzing nemesis, will premiere at the Ojai Music Festival in June, where Denk will also be music director, curator and a performer.

“Let me give you a piece of advice: Never write an opera libretto. It’s an incredibly consuming project,” Denk joked. He said the opera both pokes fun at how seriously people take classical music and is a love letter to the style.

It’s been a busy season of accolades for Denk, who won a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” in September and was recently named Musical America’s 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, released in September, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Classical Albums chart and was named “Best of 2013” by the New Yorker and the New York Times.

He said the MacArthur money has no strings attached but will allow him to continue his projects communicating about music in a deeper way. Denk is contemplating creating an iPad magazine that would be an extension of his accessible, humorous blogging style yet offer enhanced, annotated scores giving a “play-by-play” of compositions he knows intimately.

In Akron on Tuesday, he will perform a diverse program including Mozart Piano Sonata No. 15 in F major, two Schumann cycles and three Ligeti Etudes.

Denk called the Mozart sonata “one of the late, weirdest and wildest piano sonatas, a piece that I have a very strong connection to.”

The introverted, nostalgic Schumann Davids­bundlertanze, which Denk has played for years and believes to be one of Schumann’s greatest pieces, will contrast with his extroverted, joyous, even more famous Carnavale.

The pianist, who has recorded the Ligeti Etudes, said they’re incredibly virtuosic, rhythmically complicated works that he considers some of the greatest piano music written in the 20th century.

Romanian/Austrian composer Gyorgy Ligeti created intricate puzzles for the pianist in En suspens, Entrelacs and L’escalier du diable, which means The Devil’s Staircase.

“The last one that I play, The Devil’s Staircase, is the most striking and famous of them. It’s like an [Dutch artist M.C.] Escher staircase; it keeps climbing and climbing and climbing and never stopping,” Denk said. “It’s an incredible piece of virtuosity and often the piano is kind of a smoking ruin after it’s done — or at least somewhat out of tune.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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