Pianist Simone Dinnerstein: Unconventionally classical

The New York pianist, in town for a Portland Piano International concert, found her own way to stardom


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.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewDinnerstein 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.

Simone Dinnerstein performs Sunday and Monday at Portland State University. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

Simone Dinnerstein performs Sunday and Monday at Portland State University. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

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.

OAW: Your unconventional pursuit of your musical instinct, for example not winning a million competitions, launched your successful music career. Why did the standard classical path not work for you?

SD: I do follow my instincts but also I’m not really suited to the typical path. When I tried to follow that path, it never worked out for me because how I think about music and art does not fit within the strange environment of competitions. Music and art help us make sense of ourselves and our world in ways that aren’t always concrete, that aren’t analytical. If I put all my favorite pianists in a room it would be hard for me to put them in order of who is best because the whole point of hearing different people play is hearing their personalities and how they view the music they are interpreting.

What made you stick with your piano career even when the traditional path wasn’t working for you?

Playing the piano and playing classical music is my calling. I would have done it in any way possible. Up until I was in my early 30s, I was living the life of a freelance musician in New York City: solo recitals, chamber ensembles, teaching … basically anything that came my way. I had a lucky break when I recorded my Goldberg Variations. I had no preparation for the success that followed. I did really believe in the recording, and that’s why I made it: I felt I had something to say. But what followed was certainly more than what I could imagine. It’s hard to say, but even now, when I think about what I want to spend the rest of my life doing, I know I want to spend it with music in some way or another.

What aspects of your traditional classical education have you been most challenged to stretch or lay aside?

I had a few very important piano teachers and they were very strong personalities. When I studied with them, I completely surrendered myself to their ideas and spent a lot of time absorbed in an extremely traditional classical education. Digesting these experiences and deciding what does not suit me versus what I want to keep has been the biggest challenge for me. What I have discovered as I have been maturing is that I often don’t hear the music exactly as I was taught to hear it.

Can you give an example of how you hear things differently?

I tend to like to hear music a little slower than it’s normally played and that is because the music that I really love is highly contrapuntal, whether it be music by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, or George Crumb. For me, it takes a little while for my ear to absorb what I’m hearing, and I really want to hear every line. I want there to be real independence of voices so that each voice in a polyphonic passage has its own character. So sometimes I find that that means I have to play slower than I’ve ever heard it played before. My ear constantly points me to that place because when I play faster I just can’t follow all of the voices.

The decision to follow what I hear in my head takes a lot of courage, almost like putting on blinders, and sometimes it can be quite frightening if I think about what my teachers would say. But if how I am playing doesn’t feel authentic to me, then I have to follow my own instincts and play differently.

How do you find that courage?

It’s a matter of time and experience and listening to what I hear inside myself, making sure that what I hear inside myself is being fully realized when I play. After a period of time spent studying the score, delving into the structure, knowing all of the composer’s markings, and examining all of my understanding surrounding a piece of music, I sometimes find I am being pointed in a certain musical direction. Then I try to understand why I am being pointed in that certain direction. If a particular direction seems valid, then that’s how I play the music. Sometimes all the research and my subsequent playing doesn’t match up, but if that is indeed how I really want to play it and how I really feel the music is telling me it should be played, then I think it just takes a certain amount of stubbornness to stick with your own ideas.

Dinnerstein will play music by American composer George Crumb inspired by Giotto's "Adoration of the Magi."

Dinnerstein will play music by American composer George Crumb inspired by Giotto’s frescoes, such as “Adoration of the Magi.”

When you commission new music, what kind of composers is your ear attracted to?

It’s important to me that the composer is connecting with the musician who is going to play the piece. There are composers who are very strict about their interpretation, and put marks on every single note; but this compositional approach hardly leaves any room for the person who is going to be interpreting their music. Music composed in that manner is super abstract; the composer is focused on producing certain kinds of sounds he or she is hearing that is not always connected to the humanity of the musician who will be playing it. There are people really excited about this music and it can be really interesting to listen to, but I’m personally not interested in playing it.

My interest lies in playing music that has enough depth to hold many different interpretations. For me, the most interesting music moves in many different directions depending on who is playing it. The less flexible the music is, the more the music is tied down to one interpretation, the less interesting it is to me.

Dinnerstein will play a new piece by acclaimed young American composer Nico Muhly. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Dinnerstein will play a new piece by acclaimed young American composer Nico Muhly. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Why do you think listeners and performers are sometimes put off by contemporary classical music?

There are a number of issues surrounding the performance of contemporary music. For example, if there’s not enough time spent with the music then the performance doesn’t make sense and will feels like random notes put together. When I commission a piece, I want to perform it a lot, and I enjoy performing a program many times.

What’s scary about approaching contemporary music is that there are so many styles. There’s not always a path you can follow. A performer might never have experienced the language of that composer before and it can be really daunting to learn.

My personal experience is that when I perform modern music, concert-goers are really excited about it. Oftentimes that’s the music they talk about the most to me. And what I find particularly interesting is that children respond way more to contemporary classical music than to traditional classical music!

You talk a lot about listening: listening to yourself, listening to the composer, listening to the musical lines. Can you talk about the practice of listening?

The ability to listen is something that’s been lost in our society today, and it’s really sad. I think that today everything is about doing and movement forward. Listening is the ability to stop consciously making sense of things, to stop planning and timing. It’s about experiencing the moment one moment at a time.

The biggest challenge of a musician is learning to listen. Learning the difficult fine motor skills involved in playing an instrument can take over everything else. Then after you’ve spent lots of time practicing and have figured out how to play the piece, you then want to make sure you play it according to your plan. But when you’re performing, it’s all about hearing what the music is doing in that moment. You have stop thinking about all the planning and you have to listen and respond in that moment to what the music is saying.

How does listening relate to interpretation?

Interpretation should never be about you [the performer]. When I practice and perform I have to clear my mind of everything else, leave aside my self-judgment and just think about what I’m hearing right then. Interpretation is not a set of clothes that you pull on top of the music. An interpretation is what you think that music is actually saying. Interpretation is the discovery made by investigating the music. Interpretation is never about you, about saying, “Listen to me do this, and now listen to what I can do here.” Interpretation is about saying, “Listen to what is happening here in the music and listen to what is happening there in the music!” A lot of different things are going on during a performance that you have to think about and manage, and all of that can get in the way of you listening.

How does improvisation relate to listening?

One of the things that makes a performance sound stilted is that it sounds completely preconceived, dry, not living. Being able to bring the quality of improvisation into a piece that was written hundreds of years ago is really important. Improvisation is the first time, right? When you improvise, you are so much responding to the moment that it is indeed the first time that music has happened. When you play a piece of written music that you have practiced a million times, you still need to bring that quality of discovering the music for the first time. I feel this quality when I genuinely listen to the music while I’m playing it. Then the music surprises me even though I know where it’s going. What is happening in that moment is the first time that it has ever happened. All those other performances don’t exist anymore. This one is fresh and new. 

Simone Dinnerstein performs December 14 and 15 at Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave, Portland State University. Tickets $45-54. As part of PPI’s “Beyond the Score” program, Dinnerstein will teach a master class free and open to the public on Saturday, December 13 at Portland Piano Company, 711 SW 14th Ave. at Morrison.

Jana Hanchett is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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