february 2011

Simone Dinnerstein: 'The art I love—Piero della Francesca, for example—is always a little bit wrong, the dimensions aren't exact, the perspective isn't perfect, there's some distortion. And when it moves away from perfection, it becomes mysteriously human.' (Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

The ‘Majestic Originality’ Of Simone Dinnerstein

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, where she still lives, now as a wife and mother, Simone Dinnerstein burst into the classical consciousness in 2007 with the Telarc release of her self-financed (or rather, self- and friends-financed) recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations played on a 1903 Hamburg Steinway. She sent copies of the disc to a few critics and to some artist managers as well, and secured sponsorship for a 2005 concert at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. A New York Times listing of the show mentioned the unreleased Bach recording, and lo, a recording contract was forthcoming from Telarc, which released the album and reported it selling some 30,000 copies, which qualifies as "whopping" in the classical world. The disc topped Billboard's Classical Sales Chart in its first week of release and landed on a bevy of year-end Best Of lists. The immediate impact of this on Ms. Dinnerstein's life? She was able to buy the vintage Steinway.

In 2008 the pianist recorded a program of Bach, Beethoven, and Philip Lasser at Berlin's Kammermusiksaal (a venue about half the size of the adjacent Berlin Philharmonic hall), and released The Berlin Concert to further acclaim, albeit with some gripes about the performance of the Bach (including the Goldberg Vairation 13) and Beethoven pieces, but fairly unanimous thumbs-ups for the interpretations of Lasser's "Twelve Variations on a Chorale by J.S. Bach."

Simone Dinnerstein on her new album, Bach: A Strange Beauty: ‘There’s something about Bach’s music that when I hear it I feel clean. There’s something about the depth of his writing that reflects like a crystal all different kinds of light. Bach’s music feels like it comes from the ground and goes to the sky.’

Early last year Ms. Dinnerstein jumped to the recording big time by signing with Sony Classical, and now has returned with another Bach odyssey, titled Bach: A Strange Beauty. WQXR-FM in New York made it the station's Album of the Week a week before it was released and the critical raves are starting to pile up again.

The Independent's (U.K.) Michael Church was skeptical of Ms. Dinnerstein's Goldberg Variations effort, and he began a recent profile of her in the January 16 issue of The Independent by referencing his reservations about the disc:

As it happens, I was one of the few critics not to like the CD unreservedly, and when I ask her reaction to my strictures on her opening tempi in BBC Music Magazine, she laughs: "That's OK. If everybody loves you, there must be something wrong." But her interpretation is evolving all the time, she adds, and her speeds are now sometimes quite different.

Nevertheless, Church grants the debut disc's "incontrovertible" proof of "the majestic originality" of the artist's vision, and adds, "the same holds good for her new CD, Bach: A Strange Beauty, which consists of a suite, some chorale arrangements, and two concertos."

dinnersteinChurch: "The title comes from Sir Francis Bacon: 'There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.' For Simone Dinnerstein, this is a defining quality of Bach's music: 'I always think of it as being about symmetry and structure gone slightly awry. He throws in something unexpected all the time. Most of his music is made up of sequences, harmonic progressions, ascending or descending. You expect it to be the same in each measure, but in one of them he will invert the voices, or have a slightly different harmony, and because it's not an exactly repeated sequence it throws off the balance of the phrase, which becomes asymmetrical. Baroque is all about perfect form, and this is un-Baroque.' Dinnerstein links this to the paintings she copied as a child: 'The art I love—Piero della Francesca, for example—is always a little bit wrong, the dimensions aren't exact, the perspective isn't perfect, there's some distortion. And when it moves away from perfection, it becomes mysteriously human.' So it is with Bach: she even likes what Jacques Loussier does with his music.

"But she's by no means limited to this composer. The CD she released last year includes an extraordinary account of Beethoven's final Piano Sonata, where visionary beauty alternates with an energetic jazziness, and her chamber music activities now include a double act with the folk singer Tift Merritt. And she's unapologetic about the smallness of her solo repertoire, the by-product of her passionate thoroughness. 'Even now, playing the Goldbergs is a lot of work. Before a performance, I need to clear my head of everything else for two weeks. It's like a marathon: you need to build up your mental and physical strength.'"

Since 1996, Ms. Dinnerstein has played concerts throughout the United States for the Piatigorsky Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing Classical music to non-traditional venues. Amongst the places she has played are nursing homes, schools and community centers. Most notably, she gave the first classical music performance in the Louisiana state prison system when she played at the Avoyelles Correctional Center. She also performed at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, in a concert organized by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra coinciding with her BSO debut.

Simone Dinnerstein performs at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, Jessup, MD, October 23, 2009, a concert organized by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra coinciding with the pianist’s BSO debut.

In addition, Ms. Dinnerstein has founded P.S. 321 Neighborhood Concerts, an evening concert series at the Brooklyn public elementary school that her son attends and where her husband teaches fifth grade. The concerts, which feature musicians Ms. Dinnerstein has admired and collaborated with during her career, is open to the public and raises funds for the school's Parent Teacher Association. The musicians performing donate their time and talent to the program.

Last month she performed a series of concert events (in Durham, NC; Davis, CA; and San Francisco, concluding with a February 3 concert in Tallahassee, FL) with country-folk artist Tift Merritt titled Night. Commissioned by Duke (University) Performances, the work featured new music by Patty Griffin, Brad Mehldau and Philip Lasser with arrangements by violinist Jenny Scheinman. In addition to this material, both artists perform their own solo sets. Writing at The Thread, the Duke Performances' Blog, Brian Howe notes: "Merritt and Dinnerstein are undertaking something audaciously eclectic-rangy in its components, uncompromising in its pointed emotionality. The program they'll present absorbs an amalgam of composers, arrangers, lyricists and contexts; poetry and art-music and popular song. It reads like a high-minded yet passionate—indeed, verging on sentimental—dialogue between disparate sections of the pop-art continuum, a multivalent interrogation of the nocturnal in all its shadings and forms. "

At home in New York, Ms. Dinnerstein is continuing Neighborhood Classics (formerly Neighborhood Concerts), a concert series open to the public and hosted by New York City public schools. The musicians performing donate their time, and ticket sales benefit the schools' Parent Teacher Associations. The series began last year at PS 321, the Brooklyn public school the artist's son attends and where her husband teaches. (Simone also attended the school, and her mother taught there.) This year, the series expands to include PS 142 on the Lower East Side.

Daughter of painter Simon Dinnerstein, Ms. Dinnerstein is a graduate of The Juilliard School where she was a student of Peter Serkin. She was a winner of the Astral Artist National Auditions, and has twice received the Classical Recording Foundation Award. She also studied with Solomon Mikowsky at the Manhattan School of Music and in London with Maria Curcio, the distinguished pupil of Artur Schnabel.



Simone Dinnerstein Hears Things Differently'

excerpts from WQXR-FM Album of the Week Review, January 25, 2011

Simone Dinnerstein, piano
Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin
Sony Classical
Available at www.amazon.com

We tend to think of J.S. Bach as the most logical of all composers. His formal rigor drives the 32 Goldberg Variations and the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier, among other precisely balanced creations. Simone Dinnerstein hears things differently.

On Bach: A Strange Beauty, she goes looking for the expected patterns, the off-kilter rhythms and the mysterious and hyper-expressive sounds in the composer's music. This collection contains three transcriptions of his Chorale Preludes, two Keyboard Concertos and one English Suite.

Simone Dinnerstein plays Variation 13 and discusses Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A clip from Michael Lawrence’s film, BACH & Friends.

The Brooklyn-based Dinnerstein is no stranger to pushing the envelope when it comes to Bach interpretation. In 2007, she achieved an unexpected breakthrough after teaching herself and recording the Goldberg Variations. Telarc picked up the album and it became one of the year's biggest success stories. The originality of her interpretation surprised (and, in a few cases, puzzled) many who were familiar with this work.

On Dinnerstein's Sony debut, she continues her quest to draw out unexpected qualities in Bach. Her penchant for shading effects and for contrasts in dynamics is particularly found in the Prelude arrangements. A haze of pedaling envelops Wilhelm Kempff's arrangement of Nun freut euch while a Schubertian sense of line and rubato dominates Busoni's arrangement of Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ.

Dinnerstein plays up the asymmetries and off-kilter elements of the concertos, especially the opening of the D-minor Concerto with its quirky offbeats. The F-minor Concerto, meanwhile, has a kind of romantic grandeur. The English Suite No. 3 in G minor is leaner and more straightforward, though the dynamics—whispered pianissimos and ferocious fortes—remind us that this is a Dinnerstein performance.

bach friends
Michael Lawrence’s BACH & friends DVD is
available at the filmmaker’s website



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