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From ragtime to pavans, pianist Jeremy Denk hits the right mix

Jeremy Denk
The Georgia Straight

With a running order that ranges from Johann Sebastian Bach to ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin to early modernists Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith, Jeremy Denk’s upcoming Vancouver Recital Society appearance looks to have something for everyone—or at least anyone who would turn out to hear a piano recital on an autumnal Sunday afternoon.

When it comes to the kind of erudite-yet-crowd-pleasing programming that won him a 2013 MacArthur fellowship, however, Denk says that he starts by pleasing himself.

“In a weird way,” he notes in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., “this is just a collection of things that I particularly love.

“The core of the program is obviously this sort of iPod shuffle about syncopation, using ragtime as a sort of point of departure for… Sorry, I’m still waking up!” he continues, reached the morning after a genre-bending Kennedy Center collaboration with jazz pianist Jason Moran. “But it’s about rhythm as an entity in music, and rhythm as a source of wit and surprise and joy. Ragtime is a genre that is pretty humble, but it has this element of charm and disruption and change-up in it, and I began looking around for other pieces that reflected it, or dealt with that issue, or have that same quality.”

William Byrd’s “Ninth Pavan” from Passing Measures finds Denk foraging furthest afield, and for those with only a sketchy knowledge of the Elizabethan composer’s work, it probably seems one of the stranger items on the bill. When asked why he’s opening with such a relatively simple piece, though, Denk explains that Byrd’s score is not quite as straightforward as it might seem.

“It’s not the ‘Paganini Variations’, by any stretch,” he says, referring to Johannes Brahms’s notoriously taxing Variations on a Theme of Paganini. “But it’s incredibly intricate, and a little bit far from the grammar of music that we’re used to listening to in classical concerts. I think it takes some translating to the modern era in order to put across the incredible joys of that music. It’s just coursing with rhythmic life all the time, this Byrd pavan.

“You just play it with vitality, I guess,” Denk contends. “For me, the end of the Byrd has an astounding climax of rhythmic complexity that sounds almost exactly like ragtime, for some brief instances. There’s also the way the music lifts off, beginning with simple premises and then complicating them.…By paying attention to that, I hope I can make this music accessible to the modern listener and not feel like a lecturer from a music-history class.” 

Read the rest of the review here