Listening to an iPod shuffle can be an exhilaratingly untethered experience, as a randomized playlist materializes out of the ether. For American pianist Jeremy Denk, the “shuffle” has become an artistic calling card, offering an innovative model for concert programming that reflects his restless and insouciant imagination.
Denk’s delightful Sunday afternoon recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented by Washington Performing Arts, really contained two programs. Denk offered the outlines of a traditional recital, opening with Bach and closing with Haydn and Schumann. At the heart of the concert, though, was what Denk called an “iPod shuffle” of seven eclectic pieces exploring ragtime. But make no mistake: This was not a random shuffle but an affectionately and expertly curated playlist.
Taking Joplin as a point of departure, Denk presented the rag as a classical form capable of expressing virtuosity, humor, nostalgia and experimental daring. He revelled in the proto-ragtime rhythmic play of Renaissance composer William Byrd’s “Ninth Pavan” and somehow kept a straight face through Paul Hindemith’s Teutonic parody, “Ragtime” from “Suite ‘1922.’ ” Deconstructions by Stravinsky and Conlon Nancarrow were contrasted with William Bolcom’s gentle and bittersweet homage, “Graceful Ghost Rag.” Donald Lambert’s “Pilgrim’s Chorus,” an astonishing takedown of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” closed the set, with its fiendish stride bass stretching Denk’s technique to its limits.
Denk’s study of rag and rhythmic play also inevitably inflected the standards on the program. In Bach’s English Suite No. 3, Denk brought an almost improvisatory feel to the mysterious “Sarabande” and powerful rhythmic drive to the concluding “Gigue.” Haydn’s scintillating Fantasia in C was replete with playful verve and jaunty cross rhythms.
The recital concluded with Schumann’s “Carnaval,” a work of 21 small pieces, which, in lesser hands, could sound like a random shuffle. In Denk’s mercurial reading, the individual vignettes were highly characterized yet also unified by the pianist’s inimitable sensibility — a sensibility alive to the work’s poetry, wit, impulsiveness and off-beat yet irresistible charm.
Chin is a freelance writer.