Jeremy Denk: Pianist, New Yorker writer, "genius"

by Andrew Chow '14

This year has been kind to Jeremy Denk. In 2013, the hard-working classical pianist released a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, toured extensively with various groups and orchestras, was published in the New Yorker and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. "Jeremy Denk is certainly one of the most gifted and interesting living American pianists," says Federico Cortese, music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. "He is a virtuoso who has made for himself a huge international name. Denk is also an extraordinarily educated and interesting intellectual who always has something enlightening to say about music." Count on Denk to impart some of that intellect upon Harvard students when he leads a free master class 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 8 at Holden Chapel. The following are Denk's thoughts on this whirlwind year and teaching techniques.

Congrats on the MacArthur. Do you know how you’re going to put it to use?

I’m pretty thrilled. This money will give me the freedom to do things I’ve always wanted to do. But there’s been so much going on — I’ve been practicing like a maniac — and I haven’t had the peaceful time to contemplate what my priorities are. I’ll be definitely be writing and expanding on the premise of my blog, and learning big, new performing projects for commission.

What are some of your goals in both your writing and your musicianship?

One thing I’m interested in with both is coming up with unexpected takes on familiar things. I’m interested in the use of imagination and the mashing of high and low. Ives, for example, a great deal of his compositional style is transcending that gap. He loves to do this in a very funny way, creating musical puns, but also in a profound way. The Goldbergs are similar in that respect: There are ones that are incredibly deep and reverential. There are the serene ones. And then there are ones that are almost plastic comedy.

You were a chemistry and music double major at Oberlin College. How you were able to juggle serious musical pursuits with everything else?

I was extremely busy all the time: I was growing up socially, I had the double major and I was doing a minor in English. I realized halfway through college that music was where it was going to be. I began to really dislike chemistry. At the time, it seemed like a failure, but actually it wasn’t. I needed to do all those things and see what I truly loved.

The most important part of taking music lessons at that age is to take your ego out of the situation when you’re receiving criticism. I spent too much time trying to play well in my lessons as opposed to trying to absorb as much information as possible. Enjoy that moment of getting information: you won’t have teachers at a certain point, and you’ll be much more glad the more open you were as a student.

You wrote a piece in the New YorkerEvery Good Boy Does Fine – which recounts your experiences learning from brutally honest teachers such as György Sebők. Are you the same way with your students?

A great deal of teaching is listening and responding to what you think is missing. Every so often that requires you to be not brutal, but very clear. More often, it requires you to listen with empathy. Watching people play and diagnosing their issues gives you a nice perspective on your own playing. As long as it’s not overwhelming, I find teaching to be completely wonderful and a life affirming activity.