By JANA HANCHETT
In 2005 Simone Dinnerstein was a young mom living with her husband and son in her hometown of Brooklyn, working as a freelance musician and raising funds to record her own CD. Perhaps that seems a bit anticlimactic for a pianist who graduated from New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and studied with the likes of Peter Serkin and the famous pedagogue Maria Curcio.
The music she recorded happened to be her richly personal interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which no pianist had ever played so slowly and expressively while retaining the clarity, fluidity, bubbliness of Bach.
Dinnerstein also savvily used her connections to garner interviews and radio play. When released by Telarc in 2007, the album shot to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Classical Chart in its first week of sales, famously out-sold the White Stripes on amazon.com, and was named to many “Best of 2007″ lists including those of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker.
Four successful solo albums (on the Sony label) later, Dinnerstein collaborated in spring of 2013 with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt to create a nationally acclaimed album that blends folk and classical idioms, combining composers like Schubert with folk-artists like Patty Griffin. Dinnerstein’s last album, released January 2014, presents all of Bach’s inventions and sinfonias, while her next disk, with conductor Kristjan Järvi leading the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, takes her into different territory: Maurice Ravel’s dazzling G major Piano Concerto, Gerwshin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and a new concerto written for her by Philip Lasser.
While Dinnerstein has performed internationally with major orchestras and in celebrated concert halls, she has stated that performing at Maryland’s Correctional Institute for Women was one of her most inspiring performance experiences. Now her self-initiated Bach-packing project brings classical music to classrooms around the country with the help of Yamaha’s electric keyboards.
On December 14 and 15, Portland Piano International presents Simone Dinnerstein in two different concerts. Both feature Bach, but on the more exciting program December 15, Dinnerstein will perform two contemporary works by American composers: “You Can’t Get There from Here,” written for her by Nico Muhly and based on fragments from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and George Crumb’s mystical “A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979,” inspired by Giotto di Bondone’s Nativity frescoes painted in the late 13th-century in Padua, Italy.
Dinnerstein talked with ArtsWatch about the courage it takes to pursue one’s path, the lost art of listening, and the thrill of playing contemporary music.