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For years I’ve been reading the essays and blog posts of MacArthur “genius” grant-winning pianist Jeremy Denk. Not since Leonard Bernstein has the music world had such a compelling explainer. Who else would compare a moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 31 No. 3 to a “Seinfeld” episode? Last March, I finally heard Denk play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a piece so technically demanding that critics have called it a “knucklebuster.” When he was done, the audience leaped to its feet. On November 13, four of us were back to hear Denk in a solo program that included works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Before beginning, he announced that—because he suspected some of us had slept as poorly as he had that week — he’d be swapping out John Adams’ “Phyrygian Gates” for more cheering fare, including piano rags by Scott Joplin and William Bolcom. Denk, a truly physical player, can go from the lightest touch to the fastest frenzy; you literally see the music moving through him. We went in contemplating our doom and left in awed silence, our feet hardly touching the floor.

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