Simone Dinnerstein Exclusive Interview: January 31, 2012
Rel. 31 Jan 2012
On Wednesday, January 4, 2012, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with celebrated American pianist Simone Dinnerstein – for their second interview – shortly before the release of her new Sony Classical release, Something Almost Being Said, dedicated to the piano music of J.S. Bach [his 1st and 2nd Partitas] and Franz Schubert [his 4 Impromptus, Op.90. In this insightful interview, Ms. Dinnerstein discusses her selection of and approach to this repertoire, the vocal quality that these instrumental works convey, and the Philip Larken poem that inspired the album’s evocative title. The two also discuss her distinct approach to interpretation (especially tempo and phrasing), the impressive success she’s been garnering, her laudable Neighborhood Classics Program, and much more. Our feature also includes a 1-Click Simone Dinnerstein concert, with full streams for subscribers, and a set of Simone Dinnerstein videos – including the creative promo video that accompanies the new album. Don’t miss this terrific interview with a very creative artist!
“I feel that my playing has really grown with this project; I've been trying not only to stretch my creative approach to the music, but also to allow myself to fully inhabit each and every phrase I play.”
– Simone Dinnerstein
Nolan Gasser: Simone Dinnerstein, welcome back to Classical Archives. It was just about a year ago that we last spoke about your debut Sony Classics release, Strange Beauty; and how delightful it is to chat with you again about your second Sony release, due out later this month, with and an equally evocative title, Something Almost Being Said – dedicated to the music Bach and Schubert. As you may recall, we began our last interview discussing that first CD’s title, “Strange Beauty," from a quote by Francis Bacon; so, keeping with tradition, let's begin today with what is perhaps an even more cryptic title – at least at first glance, "Something Almost Being Said," taken from the poem "The Trees" by Philip Larkin, where the first line is: “The trees are coming in to leaf like something almost being said”. Can you tell us what inspired this line as a CD title and, specifically, how this poem evokes for you something true and significant about these pieces by Bach and Schubert?
Simone Dinnerstein: I had chosen to record these pieces by Bach and Schubert because I thought that they spoke to one another – in terms of being instrumental pieces of music that have a vocal feeling to them; that is, Bach and Schubert here seem to be writing for the voice, even when they're writing for instruments. I also wanted to show the very intimate side of their writing, as all the music on this album has the feeling of music that would be played in a private room. So, I wanted to find a title that would show these ideas, and illustrate the feeling that the music conveys to me; I thought that there must be a poem that talked about this in some way – how music can speak to us without using words. And then my husband introduced me to this poem by Larkin, and it immediately resonated – it really described the feeling of this music.
NG: I think it was your husband who likewise introduced you to the Francis Bacon quote; so he's a good resource for CD titles; if I’m lost on one, I’ll give him a call.
SD: Yes, he’s a really good resource; he's the educated one in our family [laughs]
NG: There's a whole bunch of you, it seems.
This is your third disk dedicated to the music of J.S. Bach, with whom you've clearly forged a strong association in your career thus far. As with Strange Beauty, you here do something that's pretty distinct with the program: last time is was all Bach, though you mixed the medium and approaches; this time, you intersperse two large, towering solo keyboard works of Bach – the 1st and 2nd Partitas – with the 4 Impromptus, Op.90 [D.899] of Schubert. You’ve noted how these works seem to speak to each other, and have spoken of their vocal nature, but can you say a bit more of why you selected these particular works – and why this particular order, where you placed the 2nd Partita [in C-, BWV826] before the 1st [in Bb, BWV825], with the Schubert in the middle?
SD: I've always loved these Partitas – I think they’re probably my favorite ones. And then, I think that there's something about the tragic and melancholic aspect of the second partita [in the key of C minor] that relates beautifully to the C minor impromptu of Schubert.
NG: Yes, indeed, we keep that same key in our ears as a smooth transition.
SD: Exactly, so there’s this key relationship – but there’s also something similar in mood between that partita and the first impromptu. Schubert then ends the set in a much more uplifting way, with the Ab Impromptu; and I thought that this would weave beautifully into the beginning of the 1st Partita. I also liked the idea of ending the CD with the 1st Partita, which itself ends with almost a question.
NG: Right, with that wonderfully bouncy gigue.
As you've said, the instrumental music of Bach and Schubert offers melodic lines that are so expressive that they're almost speech-like, like songs without words – indeed, like “something almost being said”, as the poem says. But just as palpably, in Larkin's poem, there's another aspect that you just touched upon – and that's a sense of melancholy, of bitter-sweetness: where the beauty and life found in the greenness of the leaves also triggers a kind of grief, since they too will die. And so with these melodies: they obviously have such beauty and elegance, but they too remind us of what is ephemeral in our nature. How much of the attraction to these two composers and these pieces for you is tied to this aspect of melancholy, and what attention does that feeling resonate for you as you work toward giving them a performance on this CD?
SD: I guess I like music that is on the sad side – for I tend to see the sad aspect in things. And there’s a kind of wistfulness present especially in the 2nd Partita and the 4 Impromptus, especially the 1st [in C minor] and 3rd [in Gb Major]; and that feeling really attracts me. Another thing about the poem is that it talks about the cycle of life – about things dying and being born. As a classical musician, I have to think about the notion of the cycle of life because I'm playing music that was written by long-dead composers. There's always a question about how to make the music fresh, and how to re-think it for our own time.
NG: In our last conversation, we talked about your journey with the music of Bach – from your reverence of Glenn Gould to finding your own voice through experimentation, until it felt, as you said, “as natural as breathing”. You also noted how you were still trying to push yourself and continuing your own risk-taking with this music. Can you articulate how this continued experimentation and risk-taking is manifest in your performances of the two Partitas?
SD: I feel that my playing has really grown with this project; I've been trying not only to stretch my creative approach to the music, but also to allow myself to fully inhabit each and every phrase I play. In these partitas, there are certain things I’ve felt in the music that have surprised me: for instance, I’d always heard the gigue of the 1st Partita played in a bouncy, buoyant way – like a toccata. But as I was working on it, I started to feel it quite differently: I started to think about the dialogue that’s happening between the two voices; the inner voice passed between the two hands seemed more fluid – almost like water. I began to see a connection between this gigue and the minuets, and how the gigue seems to almost blossom out of the second minuet; gradually, the gigue became slower and more legato, and more about this extremely long line that’s passed between the voices. This is something I might not have discovered a few years ago, but it’s just the type of thing I’m trying to do. I feel like I’m on a certain path in my playing these days – that if the music is taking me in a certain direction that surprises me, I’ll allow myself to follow it and see where it leads.
NG: This is a fascinating topic, on which I’d love to focus a bit – I think it's very instructive for our readers to learn how an artist such as yourself creates interpretations that are your own. One movement that particularly struck me is the opening prelude of the 1st Partita; this is one that, like the closing gigue, is generally played rather fast. It’s actually one of the nice benefits of the Classical Archives site, that you can compare some 50 performances of Prelude – and yours is perhaps the slowest, and most wistful: it comes it at 3:08; the only performance that comes close is that of [German pianist and organist] Wolfgang Rubsam – do you know his interpretation?
SD: No, I don’t.
NG: Most pianists, like [Maurizio] Pollini and [Vladimir] Ashkenazy, take a rather joyful approach, as I’m sure you’ve heard – leading to a duration of around 2 minutes. So, can you tell us what inspired your approach? How long did it take for you to realize that this was the way you were going to record it? Do you play it for others to get feedback?
SD: I actually learned the 1st Partita relatively quickly, for myself. Usually I will spend perhaps a year, at least, living with a piece before I would record it; but I probably only spent about 2 months on this one. Of course, I grew up hearing this piece, and it's one that I’ve thought about a lot over the years – and that makes a big difference, because even though I didn't know how to play it, I was already thinking about it. It’s actually very interesting to finally learn a piece of music that you've heard for years, though have never played. But whenever I heard it, it didn’t quite sound like what I heard in my head, and so learning the piece was quite an exciting process – because I could try to get closer to the voice inside my head that is hearing this piece. Usually what happens is that I keep trying to approach the piece in many different ways – though the differences might sound very subtle if you’re coming from the outside. For me, this is a long process, and is really the most interesting part of being a musician; you keep searching, and eventually there are certain factors that start to crystallize – certain things that I feel always song wrong or always sound right.
With this movement [the Prelude from the 1st Partita], I felt that it was very important to always hear the intervallic augmentation that keeps occurring [e.g., at the top, from the 2nd – 3rd – 4th; then from the 3rd – 4th – 5th; then from the 6th – 7th – octave]. I thus found the trills a bit distracting, as they could make everything sound too chopped up. I wanted to create a much longer line, and so I gradually started to slow down the trills, and as I did that, everything started slowing down – and then I really liked it! I felt that I could hear the shapes, and it felt much more contoured at this pace.
In terms of getting feedback, I don’t really play for people at this stage – well, I have maybe three people for whom I’ll play, though not systematically. My husband is the primary person I play for; I really trust his ears, because he has seen me through all my studies, and he knows the whole history of how I play the way I do. Sometimes he can hear something that I’m doing better than I can; he can hear what I’m going for – what’s not coming through yet, or what problems I need to fix. But otherwise, I don’t really play for people in terms of getting their feedback on how to shape something. I will do a lot of “run-through concerts” before I perform publically or record; I’ll play in different friends’ houses – not to get their feedback, but because it makes me hear more clearly. I play differently when there are other people there – it’s almost like hearing yourself play from afar when you’re in a situation like that.
NG: That all sounds very interesting - and how great to have your husband as a confidante and artistic partner of sorts, to give you such valuable feedback. I also saw in your promo video [see right column] that what I assume was your score of one of the Partitas had a lot of written notes on it – was it just fingering, or do you also notate the kind of phrasing or tempo shifts, etc. that you want? Or do such aspects just stick with you – that once it’s right, you know how to approach it each time?
SD: I don’t write too much in the score. Occasionally I’ll write a little note to myself to remember something; but I don’t want to feel too wedded to playing in a certain way, since my playing does change a bit each time. In fact, it was interesting when I walistening to the playback during the recording session: my producer [Adam Abeshouse] was editing, and I actually took a few notes because I heard certain things that were not right, and I realized I was doing them over and over again. So, I wrote a note in the score to remember not to play it like that again [laughter].
NG: A “note to self”…
SD: Yes, exactly.
NG: Well, I've only had a chance to listen to the full album one time, but I could immediately hear that it was very fresh performance of these great works of Bach, and I’m anxious to hear it again.
Let’s move now to the music of Schubert. Of course, Schubert has likewise had quite a few champions, including some real giants like Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Horowitz, and Mitsuko Uschida – a fellow alum of yours of [legendary piano pedagogue] Maria Curcio. Although Schubert interpretation doesn’t generally invite the same kind of polemic scrutiny as Bach does, I’m sure that you worked just has hard to find your own voice in playing these Impromptus. Can you talk about your “wanderings” in the music of Schubert, so to speak, and what kinds of things you’ve tried to avoid – as well as perhaps tried to emulate in other interpretations that you’ve heard throughout the years?
SD: With Schubert, the main thing I think about is his Lieder [songs], and how singers approach them: how they phrase, how they breathe, and so forth. That’s been a big guiding force for me. I also think that Schubert’s music is so very exposed and transparent at its core, and so I try to pare it down to its simplest form – I think this is one of the biggest challenges of playing Schubert. Another challenge is being able to control this music when playing on a big modern Steinway piano – that is, to play it as lightly as I hear it in my head.
NG: It’s interesting that you focused on Schubert’s vocal music as a way of finding your voice in playing his piano music – as I can recall you saying something similar with regard to Bach; it thus seems as if the voice really is a great conduit for you to hear something unique in your own playing. I like what you said earlier, about “inhabiting each phrase”; that’s a nice image. I can hear that in your performance of the Schubert, in particular through your approach to tempo, where you indulge in rubato [a lack of strict tempo] more than in many other performances – especially in the 1st and 3rd impromptus. Can you talk a bit more about how you arrived at your actual interpretations of these pieces?
SD: I always need to be able to hear the music – and sometimes if it's a bit slower, I find that I can hear it better. There’s so much going on in the music, and it can sound episodic if you’re not careful; the challenge is to not let it sound glib, or technically that it’s simply moving from one section to another. Every transition – especially in the 1st impromptu – is so huge, and you need to hear and feel them all clearly. In the 2nd impromptu, if it’s too fast, it can sound like a finger exercise – and it’s not about that at all. In general, you have to allow each phrase to have its own unique shape, and never allow it to sound like a mere string of notes… I’m not sure if that quite answered your question.
NG: Yes, indeed – certainly, we’re all skimming around to articulate the truth about such complex topics as performing Schubert. In the end, it’s the emotion that has to grip the listener, and you certainly do that – in particular in my view, with the 3rd impromptu [in Gb]; your pacing, especially at the beginning, is so distinct from other performances, and creates quite a haunting mood. I thus can see why you would use it as a soundtrack to the video promo that accompanies the CD. I've seen a lot of these promo videos, and yours is among the more touching I've seen: you layer over Schubert's music a sort of stream of consciousness collage of clips of your family, your husband and your son playing together, your parents, your dad painting, clips of nature, and, of course, of you playing. How did this video approach come about, and how much were you personally involved in its design?
SD: The video was made by a really wonderful filmmaker, Tristan Cook; we talked about the various ideas that I had for the film, and about the images that come to mind when I play this music. We talked about what I felt this CD was about, what I felt the poem was about, and different scenarios that I could envision. Then Tristan put together a plan – for the way the whole thing flows was his idea, he framed it, and several of the scenes were his idea. But I wanted the film to be about intimacy, and to express something that couldn't be expressed in words – and I think Tristan really did that.
NG: I agree, and I think it's a very nice complement to the CD itself. It seems to be part of the magic that is your success: a very touching and personal video to accompany a very touching and personal rendering of great music, with a provocative CD title. Clearly you and your husband are doing something right, and your success lately has been quite impressive – including, I've just read, that you were the best-selling classical instrumentalist of 2011 according to Billboard; that's quite an accomplishment! Are you still amazed at how your career is continuing to blossom, or are you getting used to it?
SD: No, I'm so amazed [laughs].
NG: That's probably a good thing. It’s also nice that even with such success and your very busy concert schedule, you're still involved in local projects –specifically, with your Neighborhood Classics Program, not only at your son's school in Park Slope [Brooklyn], but also at other schools in Manhattan and Queens. How is that program going? I've seen from your website, for example, that you have a concert coming with [American lutenist] Paul O'Dette.
SD: Yes, I'm really excited about Paul coming – I'm a big fan. So, the Neighborhood Program is very grass roots, with an extremely low budget; the whole idea is for these concerts to raise money for the schools. This past year, we started doing daytime concerts in the school for the kids to accompany the evening concerts – and that has been really nice. At PS 142, on the lower east side of Manhattan – which has a very different community of students than PS 351 in Park Slope – we've been having the kids visit each others' schools for these concerts, and that's been really effective as well. I feel closely tied to those two schools, and am very interested with what’s going on with the kids there. It's still my hope that other musicians will do this in schools near them. We did one concert in a school in Queens [PS 69Q] because the director [Jenny Undercofler] of Face the Music– which is a student new music ensemble – lives in that neighborhood; and so it really made sense for her to bring the ensemble to that school. The whole idea is to keep it local and to create a connection to your own community.
NG: I saw that you recently produced a so-called “Bach Invasion”, which brought some 30 cellists to PS 321 to perform the Bach cello suites and other works for the kids [prior to the Neighborhood Concert by American cellist Zuill Bailey the following evening] – I’m sure it was a thrill for the kids to see so many cellists! But you also managed to get some good publicity out of it, thereby spreading the word about what you’re doing; I hope indeed that more musicians will find time in their busy schedules to reach out to their local community – it’s so important.
Last time, we closed our interview with my asking what your next recording plans would be – to which you responded “a solo disc of music by Bach and Schubert”; thus, you were true to your word. So, keeping again with tradition, can you share with us any insight or sneak peek into your next Sony Classics CD?
SD: Yes, the next one is going to be with the singer-songwriter Tift Merritt.
NG: Ah, yes, we talked about her last time as well.
SD: Right, we performed last season, and we loved it so much that we’re going to do a recording together in the summer; I'm really excited about it.
NG: Are you going to be writing anything new yourself, or are you just playing her original material?
SD: I’ll be doing some improvisation, and we’ve had some arrangements made for us as well. The program is a combination of classical Lieder, covers of popular songs, some of her songs, and some songs that we commissioned to be written for us – we arrange them into sets. It’s been an extremely creative project for both of us, pushing us outside of our normal territory. I wouldn’t say that I’m writing music, but I think that what I'm doing is a lot more innovative than what I normally do.
NG: It sounds like it's really an extension of some of the concerts that you've done together, mixing Lieder and her originals – very cool. And is there anything upcoming on the “straight and narrow” classical side that you can talk about?
SD: I'm pretty sure that the CD after that is going to be a concerto album. I have actually commissioned [American composer] Philip Lasser to write a piano concerto for me – which he's just about finished with; that will be placed on the CD alongside the Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
NG: Yes, I saw those latter two pieces on your upcoming concert schedule – terrific. Well, I do hope that we'll get a chance to speak again either on your next collaboration or on the concerto album.
SD: I hope so; it was great talking to you again.