Jeremy Denk answers the call and wins a MacArthur 'Genius Grant'

dmenconi@newsobserver.comOctober 26, 2013 

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Classical pianist Jeremy Denk was working out at the gym in New York when his phone rang a few months back. It was the MacArthur Foundation calling with the news that everyone in Denk’s line of work dreams about – that he’d won a “Genius Grant” award.

“I usually ignore calls from mystery numbers, but something made me answer that one,” said Denk, a North Carolina native. “They asked if I was someplace where I could have a private conversation, which I couldn’t do. I was on a Stairmaster surrounded by tons of people, so I had to have them call me at home later. But anyway, it was my most profitable trip to the gym ever.”

Denk is one of this year’s 24 recipients, receiving a $625,000 grant paid out over five years with no strings attached. In its announcement, the MacArthur Foundation cited his work as a writer as well as a pianist.

In addition to contributions to publications including The New Yorker and the New Republic, Denk maintains a lively blog with the tongue-in-cheek title “Think Denk: The glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist,” praised by the MacArthur Foundation as “a spirited ‘life log’ of technical analysis, informative repartee and witty memoir.” The MacArthur statement also cited Denk’s career as an example of “enlivening the musical experience for amateurs and aficionados alike through his eloquence with notes and words” by demonstrating “the connection between the process of writing and the practicing musician’s ceaseless efforts to find the most vivid and meaningful way to bring a particular phrase to life.”

Denk was born in Durham in 1970 and left North Carolina in childhood, going on to study at Oberlin College, Indiana University and the Juilliard School. Between recording and concert dates – many with his regular collaborator, violinist Joshua Bell – Denk teaches at the Bard College Conservatory in upstate New York and Mannes College’s New School for Music in Manhattan.

Since the MacArthur announcement in late September, Denk has hardly had time to draw a breath. That same week saw the release of Denk’s latest album, his elegant recording of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (Nonesuch Records), and he’s been playing a full slate of concerts to launch it. So he’s had no time to figure out how best to use his MacArthur largesse.

“I’ve been a little too busy practicing to really think about what to do yet,” Denk said. “I’m about to go off to an undisclosed location for a few weeks and I’ll come up with some ideas then. Ideally, I’d like to expand what I do – commission some pieces, expand the scope of the blog, take the time to learn new music, do some bigger writing projects.”

One of those bigger writing projects will be a book. Denk envisions it as equal parts memoir and the sorts of “reverent, irreverent and bizarre musings” found in his other writings (such as a recent New Yorker essay he wrote about “the neuroses of the recording process”).

“It’s such a hard thing, playing music that’s old-fashioned by definition,” Denk said. “How do you rekindle a sense that something was written yesterday? You can question your premise of how you interpret something. Or be alive to its rhythmic possibilities, to rediscover whatever humor or destructiveness might be hiding within these seemingly musty classical masterworks. There’s a big difference between a performance that feels like it’s in a museum, and one that feels conjured by imagination out of the performer.”

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