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Jeremy Denk Gives Recital in Barbican Festival: Serves as Music Director of 2014 Ojai Music Festival

On the heels of his momentous Avery Fisher Prize win last month, Jeremy Denk performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations and selections from Ligeti’s Études in London’s historic LSO St. Luke’s church on May 24. Presented as part of the Barbican Centre’s month-long festival celebrating “Explorations: The Sound of Nonesuch Records,” Denk’s recital program recalls his two hit releases for the groundbreaking label: Ligeti/Beethoven, named one of the “Best of 2012” by the New Yorker, NPR, and the Washington Post, and Bach: Goldberg Variations, which reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Chart and made “Best of 2013” lists in the New Yorker and the New York Times. Next Denk heads to Southern California for the 2014 Ojai Music Festival, where, as Music Director of the 68th season, he looks forward to performing, speaking, curating, and presiding over the world premiere production of The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), a comic opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, set to a libretto by the pianist himself. As the Wall Street Journal observes, “of all America’s up-and-coming classical instrumentalists, Jeremy Denk, the pianist-blogger who won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ in September, might well be the most interesting.”

Recital in Barbican’s Nonesuch Festival: Ligeti and Bach

The upcoming London recital showcases Denk in two of his signature works. “Ligeti’s deliberately written things that are going to screw with your mind,” the pianist explains, yet his way with the Hungarian composer’s formidable Études consistently draws praise. “Honest and rounded humanity define these performances…a marvel,” declared BBC Music in a five-star review of Ligeti/Beethoven. The San Francisco Chronicle found the Nonesuch album “sharp-edged, fierce and electrifying,” the Observer called it “dazzling,” while NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas affirmed: “Denk plays masterfully, opening up each puzzle box in turn with vitality, wit and absolute assurance.” In live performance, as the New York Times discovered, his reading of the Études left “audience members grasping for superlatives.”

Despite presenting one of the most beloved, challenging, and oft-recorded works in the keyboard literature, Denk’s recording of Bach’s transcendent Goldberg Variations has inspired comparable awe. According to the San Francisco Chronicle,

“He brings out all the beauty and ingenuity of the music. The transparency of the counterpoint, the rhetorical fervor of the melodic passages, even the dark splendor of the set’s few minor-key movements – all these qualities and more come through in glorious, maddening brilliance.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout admired Denk’s “striking blend of deeply considered expression and total technical command,” concluding: “I find Mr. Denk’s interpretation of the ‘Goldbergs’ to be enthrallingly involving. He is one of our finest musical minds.” Denk’s season-launching “Goldbergs” concert tour found similar favor. His appearance at Chicago’s Symphony Center was hailed as one of the fall’s ten best classical events by Time Out Chicago, which dubbed him a “klavier blackbelt,” and  prompted the Chicago Tribune to reflect: “Few of today’s important concert pianists have pondered J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations as deeply, written about the piece as extensively, or play it as exuberantly, as Jeremy Denk.” 

Before the London recital, the pianist will introduce a screening of his new DVD, Liner Notes to the Goldbergs, which accompanies his recording of the work, and after the performance he will give an interview on stage. The Barbican’s month-long tribute to Nonesuch Records also features appearances by such label-mates of Denk’s as the Kronos Quartet, Emmylou Harris, and Natalie Merchant.

As Music Director of the 2014 Ojai Music Festival

There surely can be few readers of The Classical Style, the late Charles Rosen’s National Book Award-winning masterpiece of musical scholarship, who find themselves struck by its operatic potential. Yet Denk has taken the seminal text as the inspiration for his first libretto, the basis for a comic opera titled The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), in which roles range from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to “a preening musicologist,” a bartender, and the “ongoing love triangle” of the tonic, dominant, and subdominant. With music by American composer Steven Stucky, whose Second Concerto for Orchestra won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and whose August 4, 1964 was a 2013 Grammy nominee for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition,” the resulting opera – a co-commission of the Ojai Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and the Aspen Music Festival – receives its world premiere at the 2014 Ojai Music Festival on June 13. All the roles will be shared between eight singers, with the support of Atlanta Symphony’s Robert Spano conducting The Knights, the innovative NYC-based orchestra collective hailed as “the future of classical music in America” (Los Angeles Times) that will be in residence throughout the festival. As a curtain raiser before the opera, string quartet Brooklyn Rider will play Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet, and earlier that day Denk will talk about Charles Rosen and take part in a panel discussion on The Classical Style.

This kind of imaginative engagement with the music of the past is one of the principle themes underlying Denk’s curatorship as Music Director of the 2014 Ojai Music Festival. He rejoins The Knights for the world premiere of 140 characters or less, a new commission from Andrew Norman in which the Rome Prize-winning composer takes up Denk’s challenge “to pay another call on Schumann and Mozart,” alongside a recomposition of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto by Timo Andres (June 14); collaborates with Uri Caine and his ensemble on the Grammy-nominated jazz pianist/composer’s own Mahler Re-Imagined, as well as on selections from Janácek and Schubert (June 12); and is responsible for devising “a salvo of musical canons, old and new, silly and serious” by Josquin, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Bartók, PDQ Bach, and Thomas Adès, which The Knights will perform on a program bookended by Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Caine’s arrangement of the Goldbergs (June 15). Ojai also finds Denk playing Ives sonatas with violinist Jennifer Frautschi (June 14) and reprising Ligeti’s Études before taking part in Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” with The Knights and the Ojai Festival Singers in the festival’s closing concert (June 15). Other highlights of Denk’s Ojai curatorship include The Knights playing Boccherini, Ives, Feldman, Stockhausen, and Weill (June 14); Brooklyn Rider’s rendition of quartets by Schubert, Philip Glass, Evan Ziporyn, and the group’s own Colin Jacobsen (June 14); and the Uri Caine Sextet playing Gershwin as reimagined and improvised by Caine (June 13).

In addition, Denk serves as Music Director of the fourth Ojai North! festival (June 19-21) at the University of California, Berkeley, of which the centerpiece will be the Bay Area premiere of The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) on June 20 and 21.