Bard pianist wins MacArthur fellowship

Jeremy Denk given 'Genius' grant for his many talents

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Pianist and writer Jeremy Denk, a Bard College Conservatory of Music faculty member, has been named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, one of only 24 people in the country to receive the prestigious award.

Denk, who performs the works of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin as well as the work from 20th-Century artists including Ives and Ligeti, is lauded for his duets alongside violinist Joshua Bell and for his innovative thoughts on classical music. He also has published articles on music in the New Yorker and the New Republic magazines, and writes about his life as a musician in a blog called Think Denk.

Reached while on a national tour, Denk was a bit overwhelmed by the honor, which comes with a $625,000 grant over five years.

“I’ve been thinking of all the work and especially all the people — mystery people behind the scenes — who helped me to get this,” Denk told The Observer. “It’s crazy, and when I calm down, I’ll try to think of how to put this great gift to best use.”

In 2004, when cellist Robert Martin began to create a conservatory at Bard, Denk was one of the first two people he sought out.

Denk embodies the idea of the conservatory because of his broad knowledge base and ability to manifest connections within his music, said Martin, who is now director at the Conservatory of Music.

In the early Conservatory years, Denk taught seminars, incorporating new ideas about musical analysis he had proposed while earning his doctorate in piano performance at the Juilliard School. He also has a degree in chemistry along with a degree in music, a double major earned at the Oberlin Conservatory. And he has a master’s degree in music from Indiana University as a pupil of Gyorgy Sebok.

Today, Denk’s solo career has skyrocketed and he no longer teaches regularly at Bard, but visits when he can.

“When he says he wants to come, all of the pianists want to play for him,” Martin said.

When Martin thinks of Denk in performance, he thinks of spontaneity, concentration, and joy.

“He looks like he’s having a great time when he plays,” Martin said. “It must be frustrating to other musicians, because it looks so easy.”

The fellowship, known as the “Genius” award, is given out annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to individuals who are outstanding in their fields.

Denk is the 12th Bard faculty member to receive a MacArthur fellowship.

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