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Jeremy Denk Brings Intellect to Two Keyboards

Jeremy Denk
Santa Barbara Independent

By Charles Donelan

Pianist Will Perform at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Saturday, March 9

It shouldn’t be news that a musician as distinguished as Jeremy Denk is also an excellent writer and a well-rounded intellectual, but somehow it is, especially now that he has released a spectacular solo album, Ligeti/Beethoven, and is touring to support it in a series of solo recitals. When Denk arrives in Santa Barbara for his UCSB Arts & Lectures–sponsored gig this Saturday, he will come armed not only with his acclaimed technique at the piano keyboard but also with a significant constituency for his work on another keyboard, that of his computer, where he writes a funny and interesting blog, Think Denk, along with his own liner notes and numerous articles for such prestigious publications as The New Yorker and The New Republic.

Of course no amount of writing, no matter how witty or intelligent, could possibly come between a serious musician and his or her audience, but for Denk, that’s not a problem. He commands maximum respect from his listeners, critics, and peers for his “unfussy, spellbinding” performances, and he has attracted the attention of such discriminating collaborators as violinist Joshua Bell, with whom he recorded the outstanding 2012 CD French Impressions. Saturday’s recital at UCSB should show Denk’s commitment to clarity and cohesiveness at its best, as he has put together a program that includes everything from a Bartók sonata (Sz. 80) to Bach’s great Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, BWV 869. Denk’s take on four relatively unusual short pieces by Franz Liszt will round out a night that will end with the majesty of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111.

Speaking with Denk by phone from his home in New York City last week, I was struck by the pianist’s apparent willingness to think afresh about everything he’s doing, even when confronted by what are likely to be some old familiar questions. He said that the hours that pianists must spend to keep in practice can leave them feeling as if they are “chained to a big black beast,” but he also acknowledged that certain composers such as Bach have the ability to create “real joy” every time he encounters them. When asked the inevitable question about his multifaceted life as a musician who also writes, he said that going back and forth between the two has helped him to learn to trust himself. “In both capacities, what I am trying to do is to look into the music without a lot of preconceptions and really open my brain to it. If I can achieve that openness to the music, the playing just grows from that.”

Sometime this spring, Denk will release his second solo effort for Nonesuch Records, a CD of the oft-recorded Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach. “I just played it how I see it,” he said of the recording session. “I was not self-consciously trying to be irreverent or absurd. I wasn’t aiming to be weirder than Glenn Gould, or more aristocratic than Murray Perahia,” he said, mentioning two of the most revered recordings of the Variations that are currently available. “They get a little wild towards the end, and I found that very stimulating. It’s almost like the pieces are coming apart, and I love disintegration.”

As for Think Denk, which is subtitled “the glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist,” Denk insists that it’s not about participating in any kind of movement or trend. “I’m not good with trends,” he said, “so that’s not what it is about at all. It really happened for personal reasons, because one of my friends kept yelling at me that I had to do it.” Despite the modesty of this disclaimer, the proof is in the writing, which manages to be both charming and substantial. Those who attend Saturday’s concert are likely to feel the same way about the music.