The Genius in Jeremy

September 27, 2013

Erich Burnett

Jeremy Denk playing piano
Jeremy Denk in a 2013 rehearsal with the Oberlin Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Photo credit: Chris Lee

It’s been three weeks since Jeremy Denk ’90 learned what the rest of the world is hearing only now.

“I was on the StairMaster at the gym when I got this mysterious call,” he says, recounting the day in early September when the MacArthur Foundation cut his workout short. Ten minutes later, after scampering back to his Manhattan apartment for more privacy than a locker room could offer, he dialed back to hear the news.

And then he bounced off the walls, incredulous at what he’d been told: The 43-year-old pianist had been named one of 24 MacArthur Foundation Fellows for 2013.

Often referred to as “genius” awards, MacArthur Fellowships are awarded to U.S. citizens across a wide array of disciplines—from science to the arts and all points in between—who display exemplary creativity in their work and the promise of great achievement in the future. (Denk, in his undergraduate days at Oberlin, happened to be both artist and scientist: He majored in piano performance and chemistry.)

Individuals cannot apply for MacArthur Fellowships; they are nominated by an anonymous panel, which recommends finalists to another anonymous selection committee. So Denk, like virtually all honorees, has no idea how he landed on MacArthur radar.

Ultimately, how he got there matters less than what he gets now that he’s made it. In addition to an exclusive brand of prestige, Denk will receive $625,000 over the next five years to spend as he wishes. The MacArthur Foundation, which names 20 to 25 fellowship winners each autumn, declines to place any restrictions on use of the grants.

“That was the most profitable trip to the gym ever,” Denk says, still marveling at the possibilities he has yet to sort out. “You just start wondering about how it will change your life, and then the ways that you hope it won’t change your life.”

For Denk, a three-week vow of silence has given way to two days of insanity: congratulatory messages from every corner of his world, brand-new demands on his already limited time—and the welcome challenge of reconciling his latest tier of fame with his regular working life. A faculty member at the Bard College Conservatory of Music in addition to his performance career, Denk is also a thoughtful and expressive writer whose works have appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, and Newsweek, among other publications.

On this day, he’s preparing for a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at a venue in Boulder, Colorado. In four days, his new CD/DVD recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations will be released by Nonesuch.

Such is the life of a newly christened genius whose artistry has been beyond doubt for years.

"The MacArthur grant is a tribute to Jeremy’s fertile intelligence, his amazing work ethic, and his ability to appeal to a broad range of audiences, including young people not usually attracted to classical music,” says Peter Takács, a professor of piano whose tenure at Oberlin dates back to Denk’s time on campus.

“Jeremy is a truly exceptional artist—a brilliant pianist with a remarkable intellectual curiosity, a passion for artistic exploration and discovery, and an extraordinary gift for drawing audiences alongside him on those expeditions, through performance and through his writing,” says Andrea Kalyn, acting dean of the conservatory. “His work is both provocative and inspiring, and we are so thrilled that the MacArthur Foundation has affirmed Jeremy as a model for aspiring young artists with this award.”

The honor for Denk comes one year after another Oberlin alum, flutist Claire Chase ’01, was also named a MacArthur Fellow. Chase is co-founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE, a new music group that also includes Oberlin faculty violinist David Bowlin ’00.

“I’m a huge fan of Oberlin, and I obviously believe it was the right road to take,” says Denk, who counts Chase as a friend and inspiration. “Oberlin was a sort of laboratory for all of my interests and to explore who I was. I feel that something about this prize traces itself back to my Oberlin days.”

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