Pianist Jeremy Denk goes places both sunny and dark

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

If you had to describe pianist Jeremy Denk’s recital presented by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, it might resemble a weather forecast: a mix of sun and clouds.

Denk’s Sunday program is a musical chiaroscuro that opens with Haydn’s sunny “Piano Sonata No. 60 in C Major.”

“I’ve always loved this piece; I’ve played it since I was a little kid,” Denk says from San Francisco, where he’s in rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony. “It’s filled with light.”

But the clouds soon gather for an unusual mingling of Schubert dances with selections from Janacek’s “On the Overgrown Path.” On the surface, these composers seem to have little in common, but Denk sees musical and emotional parallels in the works he chose to play.

“These pieces are a little under 100 years apart, but they’re all about anxiety and ambivalence,” Denk explains.

“Schubert is so good at the kind of music where the minor key is consoling and the major key is desperately sad,” he says. “He’s always playing with your emotional expectations and that line between light and dark.”

But Janacek, who was born 36 years after Schubert died, isn’t all that far removed, Denk says.

“In a weird way, it’s like time traveling; the same ideas are revisited almost a century later with a little bit more modernity, but sometimes it’s hard to tell Janacek and Schubert apart.”

The melancholy mood continues with Mozart’s sublimely beautiful but tragic “Rondo in A Minor.” However, the clouds are chased away with Schumann’s lively “Carnaval,” a musical take on the festival before Lent, filled with high spirits and sprightly humor.

The recital’s mélange of sun and shadow makes for “a nice symmetry of joy and sadness,” Denk says.

If there’s one thing the pianist enjoys almost as much as playing music, it’s writing about it. His blog, “Think Denk,” is a cocktail of erudition and humor, and he’s also written for newspapers and magazines, including a piece in The New Yorker about his musical education. That article, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” was the genesis for a memoir Denk is writing for Random House. He hopes to complete it by the end of this summer.

Writers are often voracious readers, and the pianist admits to being “obsessed” by books. Currently, he’s immersed in short stories by Italo Calvino.

Denk’s penchant for writing extends to the operatic world. He wrote the libretto for Steven Stucky’s “The Classical Style,” based on the 1971 tome by Charles Rosen. The opera, which premiered in 2014, opens with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in heaven playing a spirited game of Scrabble. Rosen and Denk met, but Rosen died before the opera was completed.

“I hope Charles would have liked the piece, like his aria explaining the birth of the classical style,” Denk says. “I tried to remain faithful to his spirit, even though there’s a lot of madcap humor. When Charles expounds on the music he loves, it’s incredibly serious.”

The last couple of years have been heady for Denk. In 2013, he was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Fellowship, to the tune of $625,000. The following year, he won the Avery Fisher Prize and was named Musical America’s 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year.

The MacArthur windfall allowed Denk, who also keeps a small apartment in New York, to purchase a retreat in the Catskills, where he can work more peacefully on his music amid nature.

As Denk explains it, it’s a respite that helps him to focus.

“Being a pianist is such a complicated, frustrating, interesting and wonderful profession. But I love it.”

George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Pianist Jeremy Denk

3 p.m. Sunday

Seligman Performing Arts Center

22305 W. 13 Mile, Beverly Hills

Tickets $30-$60 adults; $15-$30 students

(248) 855-6070