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Jeremy Denk Talks with His Hands

his razor-sharp, funny and unexpectedly poignant blog Think Denk, pianist Jeremy Denk recounts a fuzzy-headed late-night meeting in a Brooklyn bar. While struggling through a faltering conversation with a companion, Denk fumbles a Roland Barthes book out of his leather bag and quotes a passage:
“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.”

“So says Roland,” says Denk, and by extension, so says Denk. And it all makes sense—words, language, fingers, sound. The concepts begin to blend, in both Barthes’ prose and in the dynamic worldview of this Steinway Artist, one of the most prolific and exciting performers and writers in today’s classical music world. The words, the music, the emotions and the art are all at the tips of Denk’s fingers.

“I have to confess I am slightly (as in rabidly) prejudiced against sports-music metaphors, in the same way that I detest phrases like ‘Beethoven was the Jimi Hendrix of his time’ … although I realize the importance of bringing classical music into semantic proximity with things that people actually like.” ~ Jeremy Denk, in Think Denk

Over the last two decades, Denk has steadily built a reputation as an unusual and compelling artist, and has been hailed as the “humorist-intellectual” of the classical music world. “So many recitalists these days mix old and modern music, but few have Denk’s gift for stacking both halves of the deck with works of such iconic grandeur, and then pulling off the mammoth recital as if it’s all in a day’s work,” wrote Boston Globe critic Jeremy Eichler of Denk’s recent Boston performance. Denk has appeared as soloist with many major orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and London. He regularly gives recitals in New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and around the United States. This season he makes solo appearances in venues including Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium and London’s Wigmore Hall to play concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Ravel.

But Denk is channeling more than music. When he’s not performing, practicing or recording, he’s writing. In addition to his enormously appealing and widely read blog Think Denk, which he launched in 2005 as a way to “talk about music,” Denk has written liner notes and program notes for many artists and performances. His essay on the failings of program notes appeared in The Best Music Writing 2011, and his essay “Flight of the Concord’ was published earlier this year by The New Yorker. Add to these impressive publications a Denk-penned New York Times Book Review of Krause’s “The Great Animal Orchestra” and an engaging Newsweek essay about his near-miss as a chemistry scholar, both published in 2012, and it’s clear that Denk’s profile as a writer is on the same skyward trajectory as his renown as a concert pianist.

“It’s not that I don’t want people to be happy, I’m just allergic to the eternal electronic happy-face.” ~ Jeremy Denk, in Think Denk Though he was born in North Carolina, these days Denk is a New Yorker. He maintains a small apartment on the Upper East Side, where he spends most days writing, taking yoga breaks and playing his vintage 1917 Steinway B grand, a piano he describes as his “best friend” and an instrument he is “passionately in love with.”

“A piano is the way a pianist speaks to the world,” he explains. “And so you need to feel you have an ally, a friend that supports you and that allows your thoughts to become sound. Steinway is it for me. It’s the only piano that has this kind of centered sound that I can mold in interesting and expressive ways. It’s the only brand I feel comfortable playing on.”

He can scarcely remember, in fact, not being committed to Steinway. “I did grow up with a non-Steinway piano,” he says. “It was a beat-up old thing that my parents had found for me. But as soon as I got serious I discovered Steinway. My teachers, my schools—they led me to be naturally immersed in the brand. I borrowed a Steinway L for many years, and when it was time for me to get my own piano I found my beautiful 1917 Steinway B. I adore it. For a concert pianist, it really does become your very best friend in a certain way.”

“Beauty is not something that ends, but your ability to experience it ends. And a question: is the immortality of the works you love a comfort?” ~ Jeremy Denk, in Think Denk But soon parting will be sweet sorrow—at least for a short time. Jeremy Denk will leave home and the Steinway B to embark on a multi-continent tour in support of his latest album, Ligeti/Beethoven, which includes Books I and II of György Ligeti’s piano etudes and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32. He’s also writing, writing, writing, with new essays and blog entries in the works as well as a new “irreverent” opera libretto that “pays very great homage to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven,” he says, “but also offers a bit of farce.” He laughs, maybe a bit sheepishly, then again maybe not. “I guess I’m taking these three old guys for a bit of a ride,” he says. “It should be great fun.”

About Jeremy Denk

Pianist Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin College and Conservatory in piano and chemistry, then earned a master’s degree in music from Indiana University as a pupil of György Sebök, and a doctorate in piano performance from the Juilliard School, where he worked with Herbert Stessin. He appears often in recital in New York, Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia. The artist’s widely-read blog, “Think Denk,” is highly praised and frequently referenced by many in the music press and industry. The New York Times describes Denk’s playing as “bracing, effortlessly virtuosic, and utterly joyous,” and reviewers frequently comment on the freshness and originality of his musical interpretations (as well as in his blog).

He lives in New York City.

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