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Denk is masterful in Ligeti, Bach show

Jeremy Denk has a highly regarded blog ("Think Denk") where, last September, he wrote an entry called "Ligeti's Infinities" and talked about practicing the composer's etudes, the same pieces with which he would begin Friday night's concert.

The phrase about Ligeti that leapt from the text was: "He's intimate with infinity, comfortable with destruction; infinity's like the 7-Eleven he stops at on his way home from work, to pick up a Big Gulp."

As the saying goes, Denk can talk the talk and walk the walk. In this case he can be entertaining and instructive but he can also back it up with the technical gifts and a protean intellect that allows him to be outrageous without being facile.

He proved it Friday night during his concert in Lippes Concert Hall, where he began the evening with a lively and informative mini-course on the structure of the Gyorgy Ligeti and Johann Sebastian Bach scores that he would be playing, including audio examples to illustrate his points.

Then, Denk sat down and performed the two-part program with vigor and panache, bobbing and swinging his head back and forth while his fingers guided by his singular interpretations of the music at hand -- either jabbed at or caressed the keyboard.

Ligeti's etudes -- technical challenges with background colors drawn almost equally from the palettes of Claude Debussy, Bela Bartok and Thelonious Monk -- filled the first half of the evening while Bach's glorious "Goldberg Variations" sealed the rest of the program.

It was an evening of contrast and surprising similarities. There were moments in which Bach's schoolmasterly approach was made to reveal a certain urbanity while Ligeti's tonal vacillations showcased moments of veiled moderation. The basic approaches were formed by the eras they grew up in, however, and Denk made sure that Bach's gift for logic and melody was always at the fore while treating Ligeti's scores with the kind of sharp-edged playing that made a convincing argument for the composer's approach to what sounded for all the world like sonic fractals.

Denk is holding a master class in piano and chamber music from 10 a.m. to noon today in Baird Recital Hall on the North Campus of the University at Buffalo. It open to the public. Based on his mini-lecture Friday,it's bound to be as entertaining as it will be informative.

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