Time Traveling with Jeremy Denk

The pianist and Oberlin alum is touring the country with an era-spanning program featuring women composers. He returns to Finney Chapel for the Artist Recital Series on November 30.

November 13, 2023

Stephanie Manning '23

Black and white photo of man sitting arms resting on a piano.
Photo credit: Michael Wilson

Time traveling isn’t usually taught in music school. But it’s one of Jeremy Denk’s ’90 favorite parts about being a classical musician.


“The bad thing is that you’re always kind of stuck in the past,” the pianist said, referring to repertoire choices. “But the good thing is you can time travel in this wild way and see across centuries a little bit.”

Denk’s latest program spans three centuries, to be exact—the 19th to the 21st. It’s also an exploration of women composers from the Romantic to the contemporary. While touring the recital across the country, he will perform in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel on November 30 as part of the Artist Recital Series.

“I often struggle with how to present some of this neglected repertoire in the context of a ‘normal’ piano recital,” Denk said. For the works by women, he opted for a playlist format—10 selections, each between two and seven minutes. The order is a careful balance, divided into pairs which are each “wildly contrasting in one way or another.”

The opening is shrouded in a “terrible grief,” Denk said, via Clara Schumann’s Romance, Op. 21, No. 1. “You feel her personal investment,” he said. “And there's a violence towards the end where this sorrow bursts into this thing.”

Romance’s pair, Tania León’s Rituál, is another approach to outpouring emotion. Denk described it as a “really wild and wooly” piece of piano writing. “It may be a little bit much to say it's a new classic, because it's a little bit more confrontational,” he said.“But for me, it’s a classic of the last 40 or 50 years.”

The roughly 35-minute playlist continues bouncing back and forth from past to present. For fans of the Romantics, there’s Cécile Chaminade (The Flatterer) and Louise Farrenc (Mélodie in A-flat Major). And for those who prefer a modern sensibility, there’s Meredith Monk’s Paris and Missy Mazzoli’s Heartbreaker.

“I wish Missy would write more piano music,” Denk said. “I think her command of harmonies is really astonishing.”

Grey haired man sitting a keyboardAnother pleasant surprise for Denk was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Piano Study in Mixed Accents. “I knew she was a great composer, but this piece is so, so fabulous,” he said. ”It’s just a simple premise—both hands in unison changing meters—but the notes are brilliantly sinuous and it's so funky.”

The final pairing stands out to Denk: Phyllis Chen’s ’99 Sumitones and the “Dreaming” movement from Amy Beach’s Four Sketches. Although written more than a century apart, the two works “speak to each other in an incredible way,” he said. 

He particularly praised the work by Chen, who is a former classmate of his from Indiana University—and a fellow Oberlin alum. “It’s very much about awareness of the acoustics of the space,” he said. “I think it’s the perfect piece for Finney.”

Finney Chapel holds plenty of memories from Denk’s time at Oberlin. A double degree student in piano performance and chemistry, Denk characterized his time at the school as “incredibly intense” and “quite stressful.” Still, Finney provided plenty of moments to remember: late night recording sessions with the Contemporary Music Ensemble, a winning performance during the concerto competition, and the spellbinding experience of hearing The Cleveland Orchestra for the first time.

“It’s a magical space,” he said. The Cleveland Orchestra performance, in particular, was a moment he recounted in his memoir, 2022’s Every Good Boy Does Fine.

Denk’s program continues to develop, and he remains open to changes down the line. For instance, there’s the matter of what comes after intermission, which at his recent performance in Washington, D.C. consisted of works by Robert Schumann and Wolfgang Mozart. He asked the audience there whether he should flip the order of the program to end with the women’s voices instead.

The response? “They seemed to want the dead white guys to have the last word.”

Denk remains unsure. “It's a tough sell, the ending of the all-female composers’ set, because it is so spaced out,” he said after a pause. “We’ll see.”

Regardless of the order, Denk hopes audiences walk away thinking of a composer they want to hear more of. There are plenty to choose from within the musical tapestry, from which he highlighted qualities of expressivity, romanticism, and yearning. 

“Also, my time at Oberlin was characterized by all kinds of inchoate and wild yearning,” he added, laughing. “So, hopefully I can channel all that.”

Reserved seating tickets for Jeremy Denk's performance are $35 for the general public. Discounted tickets are $30 for senior citizens, military, and Oberlin College staff, faculty, and alumni. Student admission is just $10. Oberlin students with a valid ID have access to free tickets through our Claim Your Seat program.

Tickets are available online and by phone at 800-371-0178. Patrons may also purchase them in person between noon and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, at Oberlin College's Central Ticket Service, located at 67 N. Main Street, in the lobby of the Eric Baker Nord Performing Arts Complex.

Learn more about the Arts at Oberlin.

This program is proudly supported by Ideastream Public Media, official media partner of the Artist Recital Series.

Stephanie Manning ’23 completed her bachelor’s degree in bassoon performance with a dual concentration in arts management and journalism. A 2022 fellow of the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, she has contributed frequently to ClevelandClassical.com and Early Music America. She is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University in Montreal.

You may also like…

Keeping Creation Collaborative with Silkroad

April 10, 2024

Percussionist Haruka Fujii and friends elevate women composers and their cultural influences on the Silkroad Ensemble’s “Uplifted Voices” program, coming to Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series.
six artists, female and non-binary, onstage playing various instruments