Keyboard 'genius' Jeremy Denk to open Shriver Hall season

Pianist Jeremy Denk
Pianist Jeremy Denk ((Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times))

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.

Conventional wisdom has it that pianists should not tackle Beethoven's final works before having experienced something of life and loss. Is there still anything to such advice?

"Yeah, of course there is," Denk says. "I was in my 30s when I first played [the last sonatas], which I hope was late enough to begin thinking about them. I am always amazed when 19-year-old students play late Beethoven. But people want to skip to the back of the book."

Denk understands the temptation.

"These late sonatas are so beautiful they make you want to deal with them," he says. "As Beethoven grew deafer, he began to be more obsessed with actual sound, which is ironic in a certain way, but also heart-breaking. It's as if he is trying to memorialize something he could no longer hear."

In the future, Denk envisions addressing "early Beethoven sonatas, which I should spend more time with," as well as "more Haydn. I don't play as much of his music as I should. It requires a lot of imagination," he says.


For all of his inquisitiveness, Denk won't likely branch out into a whole other musical genre.

"I'll just play the piano as well as I can," he says. "That's a hard enough job."

If you go

Shriver Hall Concert Series presents a recital by Jeremy Denk at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave. Tickets are $10 to $42. Call 410-516-7164, or go to shriverconcerts.org.