It had been a harrowing travel day for Jeremy Denk, topped by a 100-minute ride from JFK to his Manhattan apartment. After several delays, he was now ready to talk by phone with a reporter in Minneapolis.
So where had Denk been coming from on this ill-fated trip?
“I was in St. Paul, visiting friends,” he said.
What!? That’s like right across the river. We could have done this interview in person and never had to worry about the vagaries of trains, planes and automobiles.
“I know, but I was trying to keep it very vacation-y,” Denk said in a tone of friendly apology. “I had a lot of writing to do and they have a really chill house. I needed some personal time away from New York.”
Denk will be back in St. Paul on Friday, although there will be nothing “vacation-y” about this visit. The celebrated pianist will play Mozart’s Concerto No. 25 in C Major and the Brahms Quintet in F Minor with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in three concerts through the weekend.
St. Paul has been particularly friendly to Denk in the past several years. His recital with violinist Joshua Bell was a highlight of the 2008 Schubert Club season. He performed Beethoven in 2011 and returned the following April with work by György Ligeti and Charles Ives. In all cases, the critics smiled on Denk. Larry Fuchsberg even suggested in the Star Tribune that Denk might have been too deferential to Bell in their tandem. “He earned his equal billing” with the world-class violinist, Fuchsberg said.
The truth is, Denk always seems deferential, modest in the limelight — even as his star is taking on more luster. His recent Nonesuch recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations includes a companion DVD with video “liner notes” in which Denk demonstrates phrases on the keyboard and explains the details. But he is so shy and conscious of being watched by the camera.
“I never know why I’m talking to the camera in the first place,” he said. “But for this disc, I had a lot of mini essays and it seemed like a natural fit to talk about them on camera. Just me, talking in my casual way about what I love about the piece.
“I think we got a little lucky that day. I had just enough coffee.”
Denk’s sense of humor and refusal to take himself too seriously is all over his blog, “Think Denk,” which he started in 2005. Last spring, he riffed on the sense that he was in a constant state of emergency, offering a three-step solution that included both banishing emergencies and treating everything like an emergency.
“That was one of those moments when I was dealing with a lot of things at one time. You panic and then you laugh about it,” he said over the phone. “I shouldn’t complain. I have had an incredible year or two.”
Yes, if you consider it incredible to win a MacArthur “genius” grant, which will pay him $625,000 over the next five years. Denk was among 24 winners announced in September and said it hasn’t really sunk in so much because he’s been too busy with writing and performing obligations. Plus, he said he “desperately needs time to learn new music.”
In 2012, Denk, 43, recorded Beethoven’s final piano sonata, along with selected études by Ligeti. The New Yorker and the Washington Post named it one of the best discs of the year. He also is recording with the San Francisco Symphony, and next year will be music director of California’s Ojai Music Festival.
The Mozart that Denk will play with the SPCO is a favorite. He likes being able to play and lead the orchestra, dispensing with the middle man (the conductor), especially with Mozart.
“The darkness and the storm of the Brahms is a good complement to the complicated sunniness of the Mozart,” he said.
Growing up in New Mexico, Denk called Mozart some of the “first music I loved as a kid.” He studied chemistry and piano at Oberlin. Art overtook science, though, and by junior year, he was ready to plunge into music.
“The mad scientist transferred itself to the piano with much less capacity for harming myself or others,” he said.
The MacArthur grant, Denk agreed, would allow him more time to relax.
“I could if I didn’t have concerts scheduled out for a long time,” he said. “I haven’t had as much quiet time as I’d like to meditate and prioritize my time.”