Jeremy Denk

Prize-winning pianist Jeremy Denk performs Sunday afternoon at Oregon State University. 

If Sunday's concert by pianist Jeremy Denk seems to lean heavily on works that are variations, Denk offers no apologies: He loves the musical form, in which a composer takes a pre-existing theme and spins it through a dizzying array of twists and turns.

"Variations is an amazing genre," the pianist said in a recent telephone interview with The E. "It's all about imagination brought to a fixed thing."

The performance Sunday afternoon by Denk features a number of pieces that fall into the variations category: It opens with Ludwig Van Beethoven's Five Variations on "Rule Brittania" in D Major. The first half includes other variation-oriented works: Georges Bizet's Variations chromatiques and Felix Mendelssohn's Variations serieuses, Op. 54.

The first half also includes "I Still Play," by modern American composer John Adams, which the composer has called a set of variations on a “generating harmonic progression."

The recital's second half includes Franz Liszt's transcription of Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved)" and Robert Schumann's Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17. (If you're in New York on Feb. 1, you can hear Denk perform this same program at Carnegie Hall; his current tour also includes stops in Washington, D.C., Seattle, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.)

Denk started playing piano on a little spinet in his family home and developed a love for classical music through the family's collection of records.

"The legend is that I asked for lessons," he said. "I deny that now." 

Denk wrote movingly about his piano teachers (with a special nod to György Sebók, with whom he studied at Indiana University) in an April 2013 piece in The New Yorker, "Every Good Boy Does Fine." (Plans are to expand the piece into a book.)

Other written pieces by Denk have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian and The New Republic. But it's not as if the writing and the musical performances go hand-in-hand, he said: "It's as if they are in different rooms in my house. They're willing to talk to each other."

But the writing does attest to one of Denk's passions, to make classical music accessible to a wider audience — and he noted that, sometimes, the conventions of performance can be off-putting to audiences.

His efforts to engage listeners and readers in a deeper appreciation of classical music caught the attention of the MacArthur Foundation, which named him a fellow in 2013.

"I have some faith that if you give a little bit of help," he said, audiences will find that the music provides a deeper and richer experience.

As for the music that he enjoys playing, he confessed to a certain love for "guilty pleasures — pieces that you love that you think are basically crappy."

And he looks for music that allows him to add something to the mix. For example, "I don't have anything to say about Rachmaninoff. So I don't play it, but I respect Rachmaninoff."

He has a somewhat different reason for steering clear of piano music by Shostakovitch. To his ears, he said, the Russian composer's music is "too gloomy to be tolerated. I don't want to suffer that much."

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