With his expert insight and expression, pianist Jeremy Denk is in league with, and even making things difficult for, prominent music writers.
“A score is at once both a book and a book waiting to be written. The possibilities and the world of implications from them is something I deeply cherish,” says the virtuoso, who appears this week with the San Francisco Symphony.
Denk’s talent isn’t simply musical. His eloquence and intellectual gifts are on display in The New Yorker and on his popular blog, “Think Denk.” New Yorker music critic Alex Ross calls him “the liveliest writer-pianist since Glenn Gould.”
Denk, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow who as an undergraduate majored in chemistry and music at Oberlin College, counters the notion that classical music is overly serious.
He says, “Comedy is so central to the language of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn; the whole structure of the music is built on deception and reworking, reversing, reinterpretation and pun.”
With that in mind, the pianist is composing the libretto for an opera buffa. Featuring music by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky, “The Classical Style” is set to be a major component of the Ojai Music Festival in June.
Denk, previously featured in the San Francisco Symphony’s “American Mavericks” series devoted to contemporary music, returns to Davies Symphony Hall to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major.
At the same time, the Juilliard-trained pianist continues to champion the relative outskirts of the standard repertoire. He has recorded sonatas of Charles Ives and etudes of György Ligeti — hardly new, but widely unheard.
Last month, he released a recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” but not before posting a blog on National Public Radio’s website titled “Why I Hate the Goldberg Variations.”
He says, “I do feel a fair amount of guilt for not championing more new works than I have over the last couple of years. With new music, you never know what you’re going to get, but I do hope to do a lot more.”
After this week’s performances, Denk, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony travel to the East Coast for concerts, including a Nov. 13 appearance in New York slated to air on WQXR’s national “Carnegie Hall Live” series and San Francisco station KDFC (90.3 FM) at 8 p.m. Nov. 14.
IF YOU GO
with the San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $41 to $156