Denk articulates passion for music

MacArthur Fellow Jeremy
Denk will visit BGSU Feb. 14 through 16 as guest pianist for the David D. Dubois Piano Competition.
(Photo provided/Michael Wilson)

Pianist Jeremy Denk knows where he’ll start his recital at Bowling Green State University.
But a little more than two weeks before the show he’s still puzzling over where to go from there.
He likes, he said in a telephone interview, a performance to have “a rhythm, a coherence, or a theme, a
He does know when he takes the Kobacker Hall stage at 8 p.m. on Feb. 15 for a Bowling Green State
University Festival Series concert he’ll begin with what he termed one of Mozart’s “weirdest” sonatas,
K. 533 in F Major. His residency at BGSU, which includes a master class on Friday, is in conjunction
with the David D. Dubois Piano Competition.
In the sonata, he said, “Mozart goes off to the farthest extremes of which he’s capable.” Denk loves the
“sheer inventiveness of the counterpoint and how unpredictable everything is. It’s an insane fusion of
madcap comedy with Bach counterpoint.”
That’s just the first movement. The second, Denk said, starts off sounding like Mozart but before the
listener knows it the piece “is rounding third base toward Mahler.”
“It’s profoundly ambivalent between light and dark,” Denk said. “It’s one of the most interesting and
radical experiments that Mozart ever did.”
Denk has found himself turning more toward Mozart, and Haydn and Beethoven “in that corner of the
repertoire that I’ve always loved.”
“Part of it must be that it accesses that very young me, first learning harmony” the pianist said.
Also on the program will be etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti, a 20th century Romanian composer who achieved some
recognition when one of his pieces was used in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“One of the things I love about the Ligeti is they’re connected to the past,” he said. “He sort of fuses
all those romantic possibilities with the 21st century world of chaos theory and fractals. Basically in
many ways he’s trying to make the piano do things that a computer would do, or an insane machine.
Iterations that are constantly changing, and many different rhythms going off at the same time.” The
pieces, which he recorded for a well-received CD “Ligeti/Beethoven” from 2012, also required stamina and
“take up a huge amount of mind space.”
He said when he toured after the CD’s release it was “three months of Ligeti boot camp.”
For the rest of the program he’ll draw on big pieces he’s working on for projects he’s committed to. He
expects the program will have something by Robert Schumann. What he knows is that he wants the concert
to be a “pleasure.”
“Seeking pleasure” is important to him, and he finds it in music, and writing about music.
Denk, 43, who received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, in September, is someone with
wide ranging interests. He went to Oberlin College at 16 and double majored in chemistry and piano
performance. Music became an “all-consuming thing.”
“I felt I had a place in the music community.” His passion and talent was obvious as well to his
chemistry advisor. Denk had been offered an honors research fellowship, but after attending one of
Denk’s concerts the chemistry professor advised him not to take it. If he did, he’d send so much time in
the lab, he wouldn’t have time for music.
“I never would have seriously considered stopping music, that seemed like the worst outcome.”
At Oberlin Denk also pursued his interest in writing and literature, spending what free time he had
reading on the campus quad.
As he pursued his piano career in his 20s he continued to read, but had set aside writing. Then in 2004 a
friend suggested he start writing a blog, and “Think Denk” was born.
Writing about music fits well with his sense of music as narrative, as a form of storytelling.
He does not believe that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” as a common saying
goes. Rather, he thinks dancing about architecture could have interesting results.
“It gives me a lot of joy to get down in words something about a passage of music that’s particularly
beautiful, and something that I don’t think anyone else has quite expressed that way before.”
Denk will serve as one of the judges for the finals of the Dubois competition on Feb. 16.
“It’s always interesting to see how people go about evaluating a performance. It’s so personal. It seems
like it should be very objective but it’s not,” he said.
Whether judging or auditioning students at Bard College, where he teaches, his ear is attracted to the
performer who has an understanding of the music that’s “against the grain, that I find enlightening.”

“When I see young teens or undergrads fresh faced and enthused about how wonderful Mozart is, that makes
me incredibly happy. It’s obvious that this music hasn’t lost its ability to speak to people.”
In residence
Pianist Jeremy Denk, a MacArthur Fellow, will visit BGSU next weekend as guest pianist for the David D.
Dubois Piano Competition and the Festival Series.
On Feb, 14 at 2:30 he will give a master class in Bryan Recital Hall; on Feb 15 he will give a recital at
8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall; and on Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon, he’ll judge the finals of the Dubois
For tickets, $18 to $42, to the Festival Series concert call 419-372-8171 or visit
Pianists from far compete at BGSU
A field of 23 pianists
from eight states and China will compete in the David D. Dubois Piano
Competition at the Bowling Green State University College of Musical
Arts Feb. 14 through 16 on campus.
The semi-finalists, chosen from recorded auditions submitted to the
competition, will compete for prizes of $3,000 for first place, $2,000
for second place and $1,000 for third place.
The event begin on Feb. 14 with a by guest pianist Jeremy Denk at 2:30 p.m. in Bryan Recital Hall in the
Moore Center for the Musical Arts.
The semifinal round for the competition will be Feb. 15 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with the finals will be
Feb. 16 from 9 a.m. to noon, both in Kobacker Hall.
Judging will be by members of the BGSU piano faculty, joined for the finals by Denk.
Denk will also perform a Festival Series concert on Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. in Kobacker.
coming to Bowlig Green to compete are: Mark Bixel, from Bluffton, Ohio;
David Geng, from Princeton, N.J.; Johan Hartsburg, from Moores Hill,
Ind.; Karissa Huang, from Cleveland, Ohio; Geoffrey Kocks, from Grand
Blanc, Mich.; Sabrina Kozak, from Torrance, Calif.; Megan Lee, from
Hudson, Ohio; Wooju Lee, from Powell, Ohio; Raymond Liu, from Brunswick,
Ohio; Evelyn Mo, from Oak Hill, Va.; Lucas Myers, from Rochester
Hills, Mich.; David Nie, from Sugar Land, Texas; Amber Scherer, from
Winnetka, Ill; Sukruth Shashikumar, from Farmington Hills, Mich.; Alan
Song, from Mason, Ohio; Jarrett Takaki, from Wilmette, Ill; Joseph Vaz,
from Cincinnati, Ohio, and Zhanxian Zhang, from Rochester, N.Y. as well
as students from the Interlochen Arts Academy, Sasha Bult-Ito, from
Fairbanks, Alaska; Yingjun Chen, from China; Matthew Figel, from
Midland, Texas; Jingyi Qu, from Shaanxi, China, and Kevin Takeda, from
Indian Wells, Calif.
This is the fourth year the Dubois Competition is being presented.