Jeremy Denk, incompetent pianist

With a variety of interests and corresponding talents, Denk will do everything. Except play by the rules.

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Spend enough time with Jeremy Denk—or browsing his menagerie of a blog, Think Denk—and it’s hard to not think of him as the Tina Fey of classical pianists. There are odes to Cheetos, Pop-Tarts and nachos, and a notorious mock-interview with Sarah Palin. And there’s Denk himself, who, like Fey, possesses a multitude of talents across manifold disciplines.

“I was a kid with a lot of different, strange interests—kind of crazy,” the pianist says of his fast-track childhood in New Jersey and New Mexico. Over prosciutto and bresaola at Nizza, the conversation encompassed everything from iPads and Moleskines to James Joyce and the 5 Browns. “Liberal arts always appealed to me, obviously, for the same reason that I was always into everything.” Similarly, Denk, who double-majored in music and chemistry at Oberlin, can’t commit to one specific musical epoch.

For proof of that, look no further than his upcoming New York appearances: He teams up with the Lark Quartet on Thursday 22 for the world premiere of Paul Moravec’s Piano Quintet at Merkin Concert Hall. In May he joins John Adams and Ensemble ACJW at Carnegie Hall for Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds. And in August he performs works by Liszt, Beethoven and Mendelssohn—the latter with violinist Joshua Bell, a regular collaborator—during the Mostly Mozart Festival. “[I] specialize in music....like a kid in a candy store,” he laughs.

Yet Denk’s catholic tastes go hand-in-hand with his disregard of norms and expectations. “I’m one of those pianists who tends to ignore every existing recording and lots of traditions about playing pieces when I start,” he says. “That tends to piss people off sometimes, but that’s not really my intention. The classical piano repertoire is very well trodden, and I don’t like to feel like it’s been well trodden. I know I’m deluding myself, but somehow that’s a little bit how I live life.” For all its entertainment value, Think Denk (jeremydenk.net/blog) has been a valuable tool for the pianist: a means of allowing his views on music to coexist with his listeners’ perceptions.

As for blazing new trails, Moravec’s neo-Romantic quintet will definitely prove to be virgin territory for Denk (who also joins the Larks for Schumann’s Piano Quintet on the same program). “It’s a little bit like wandering into a forest,” he explains of the rehearsal process. “And that’s kind of fun, because you make up your own rules and clues. But it takes time. It’s tiring. And we’re trying to figure it all out together.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Denk feels more drawn to solo performances as he exits his thirties (he turns 40 next month). “I’ve learned a lot from being a chameleon, sort of adopting the musical personalities of who I was playing with,” he says. “And I feel like through my thirties, I’ve done a little bit more of defining my own [ideas] instead of listening to everybody else’s.”

Playing Stravinsky next month as a soloist with ACJW should provide a thoughtful contrast to the Merkin performance. Working with Adams also offers the opportunity for two musicians perennially fascinated by everything to forge a compelling collaboration. He recalls Adams’s orchestral piece Harmonielehre as one of the first striking contemporary pieces in his music-history classes. “I was sitting in the music history lab listening to it, thinking, Oh! I want to do that! That’s unbelievable!” Denk says of his colleague, whose Son of Chamber Symphony appears on the same ACJW program (completed by Louis Andriessen’s De Staat).

Clearly, Denk could further expand on the Glenn Gould--ian state of wonder he reaches when performing. It’s also fairly obvious that he’d rather do that than handle the rest of the day’s tasks laid out for him. “It’s long been my dream to have myself declared incompetent,” he admits, “so I could just practice all day, and blog, and not have to take care of any normal life things.”

Jeremy Denk plays with the Lark Quartet at Merkin Concert Hall Thursday 22.

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"Stephen Cage"
"Stephen Cage"

Denk is the pianist I wish I was but feel I am, at least for the most part, in my mind. An inspiration to step outside the boundries of labels. A prophet in his own right!