Pianist and New Yorker contributor Jeremy Denk comes to Meany Hall with a recital he describes as “an iPod shuffle about syncopation as a force in music.”
He’s got rhythm — “fascinatin’ rhythm,” as Ira Gershwin might say.
Toes will inevitably tap when pianist — and New Yorker contributor — Jeremy Denk returns to Seattle to perform at Meany Hall on Friday evening, March 18. For his recital, which concludes the President’s Piano Series at the University of Washington this season, Denk has programmed a dim sum of pieces to illustrate the way composers across the centuries have played with the beat.
“It’s an iPod shuffle about syncopation as a force in music,” as Denk put it.
7:30 p.m. Friday, March 18, at Meany Hall, University of Washington campus, Seattle; $45-$50 (206-543-4880 or uwworldseries.org).
The basic idea all comes down to foiling expectations of regularity, of accent and stress. Our bodies condition us to expect such regularity through biological rhythms — the heartbeat’s systole and diastole, the ebb and flow of breathing.
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Syncopation happens whenever a rhythmic gesture thwarts the “normal” pattern of stressed and unstressed beats. That millisecond of being caught off balance generates a little thrill.
Ragtime is an especially appealing example. “It’s about wit and swing,” Denk, 45, said in a recent telephone interview from his home in New York City. “That’s a very important part of some classical music as well. Stravinsky almost created his whole style on tearing things apart rhythmically and putting them back together in wacky ways.”
That, in a nutshell, explains the unusual menu for Denk’s recital: a baker’s dozen of composers ranging from the Elizabethan William Byrd to the contemporary William Bolcom, who graced the 1970s ragtime revival with eloquent contributions to the genre.
“They’re wonderful examples throughout music history of where this idea gets taken to the ultimate,” Denk said. He described the Byrd, for example — the Ninth Pavan and Galliard from “Lady Nevell’s Book,” originally composed for the small harpsichord known as the virginal — as “an unbelievable masterpiece of rhythmic writing. It ends with these outrageous syncopated riffs in the right hand. It woke me up to Byrd’s style of writing and reminded me immediately of ragtime and jazz.”
That’s just the sort of synaptic firing that has given Denk his reputation as the thinking person’s pianist. In 2013, he received a MacArthur (“genius grant”) Fellowship and, in 2014, the Avery Fisher Prize.
All this braininess comes with a highly individual style as well as a genuine gift for communicating with audiences. Denk’s 2013 recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations won widespread plaudits and also topped Billboard’s classical chart.
Characteristically, Denk is working on literary projects as well. He has a book in the works based on one of his New Yorker articles: “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” a memoir about his experiences as a student.
Denk is also preparing a video to accompany his upcoming release on Nonesuch (as he did for the Bach), devoted to the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The three Viennese masters appeared as characters in a libretto Denk wrote a few years ago for the late Steven Stucky’s debut opera, “The Classical Style” — a poignantly postmodern opera buffa.
“Laughter as part of the whole fabric of music is one thing I’m always talking about — music as playing with or about itself,” he said. Denk pointed out that classical music’s reputation for seriousness causes some listeners to overlook the pervasive role of humor and, relatedly, of “the irreverence and joy of rhythm.”
Not that serious fare will be lacking: Denk will perform Bach’s English Suite No. 3, with its smorgasbord of dance rhythms. “Bach,” he said, “is the great master of rhythm.” And he’ll juxtapose Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata with the most difficult piece Schubert wrote for piano: his pathbreaking “Wanderer Fantasy,” whose main theme is built out of an obsessive rhythmic pattern.
There’s also a modernist subplot to the program. Denk compared Stravinsky’s “Piano Rag Music” to “a Cubist painting of a rag,” while “Ragtime” by Paul Hindemith “treats the piano like a machine. It sounds like a player piano gone mad.”
“Canon,” by Conlon Nancarrow, the expatriate American maverick famous for his monstrously complex experiments with player piano, fuses the ancient principle of the musical canon — voices in imitation — with “the wit of jazz.” Denk called it “one of my very favorite pieces in the whole world. Audiences love it in its weirdness.”
Denk said that each piece of the evening’s program was “hard in a different way.” But the technical hurdles are just a means toward his goal. “For me,” he said, “it’s about telling the tale and making it work.”