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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 10

Simone Dinnerstein: in counterpoint

by Lucie Renaud / July 1, 2011

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[Translation: Aleshia Jensen]

“Everything in life is counterpoint—that is, opposition.” Glinka’s words could very well be pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s own—she has broken one after another of the music world’s tacit rules. She received her first lessons late, at the age of seven. Her parents had a difficult time believing in their young daughter’s dream of giving a solo recital on a big New York stage; they feared that the intensive practice of an instrument would isolate her.

After studying for a few years at Juilliard, she astonished friends and family by choosing to move to London in order to perfect her trade and join Jeremy Greensmith, her future husband. Refusing to live from competition to competition, she ended up returning to Brooklyn and Juilliard. She then got back to normal life: her family, her teaching studio, and occasional concerts—particularly, in prisons.

When Dinnerstein heard Glenn Gould’s iconic version of the Goldberg Variations at the age of 13, she was unaware that, 17 years later, learning this work would turn her world upside-down. At 30 years old, as if almost going in circles, she came back to the work, dissecting it for nine months, meditating on it and then recording it. A few tracks leaked onto the Internet, sparking a flurry of interest. Without really knowing what to do with the recording’s unexpected success, Simone Dinnerstein took a gamble in 2005 and called critics to the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall for a live performance of the Variations. And it paid off: prestigious labels queued up, and Telarc released her album of the Variations on August 28, 2007. The recording not only climbed to the top of the U.S. Billboard’s classical music sales chart but also Amazon’s hit parade, ahead of pop music’s best. Dinnerstein repeated the feat with her following disc, The Berlin Concert. Although the Goldberg Variations don’t haunt her anymore, Bach remains a constant source of inspiration.

Reaching her audience
Simone Dinnerstein could have chosen to give in to stardom’s siren song, but she opted for staying anchored in reality. She founded Neighborhood Classics, a concert series offered in New York public schools, including the school where her husband is a teacher and her son a student. She continues to have an active role in the Piatigorsky Fondation, which promotes recitals in less-traditional locations, particularly retirement homes, schools, and community centres. “I think that if you play in a small venue, you can communicate a lot more directly with the audience,” she explains during a phone interview. “But I always perform the music the same way, whether I play for an audience of connoisseurs or someone who could be considered less well-informed. I like playing in spaces that don’t typically host classical concerts because the audience appreciates it immensely—they have an authentic reaction. Whether you go to a concert or give one, it should help you to better understand the world. As a performer, you need to be honest and always play consistently, but you can’t control people’s reactions. Whether the room is big or small changes nothing. You can say the same thing about radio—the biggest audience you can have. I’ve gotten a lot of letters from radio listeners. I didn’t have any direct connection with their listening experience and, yet, for them, hearing me was important. I send my music out into the world, not knowing where it will end up.”

The music’s essence
Simone Dinnerstein, who happily alternates between periods of intensive listening and silence, takes inspiration from a few pianists of the past: “These days, I’m particularly interested in Myra Hess’s work. I also like to listen to Schnabel, Cortot and Lipatti. I like their approach, their sound, their touch, the harmony in the way they conceive the music and the way they express it, without any separation between the two.”

For Dinnerstein, the programme and the venue determine the concert experience. Her favourite concerts are the ones where music is the centre of attention. “I like to feel that all the members of the audience are really attentive, that we are sharing something profound. For me, nothing is quite like music—so abstract, and yet causing different reactions. I think each person gets a message that is specific, different; but, we all have the feeling of really understanding what it’s expressing, as though we were all familiar with a preverbal form of language.”

In concert in Ottawa
Bach plays a large part in her only upcoming recital on Canadian soil, which will include Bach’s Partita in C Minor and three choral preludes as well as Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and Schubert’s four Impromptus D. 899. “All the pieces on the programme are made up of short movements, creating a larger whole. I find this kind of writing very interesting: it’s like musical poetry, where saving space takes precedence, as is the case with Schumann and Schubert in particular. The choral preludes are very lyrical because they are derivative of song, of course, but they’re also very refined. And although they’re written in counterpoint, they show a completely different side to the Bach of the partita —more abstract and complex. The Schubert is meant to be an extension of the choral preludes, the partita-style Schumann in some ways.”

Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, July 29, www.ottawachamberfest.com

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