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Exclusive Interview with Simone Dinnerstein: January 18, 2011

Simone Dinnerstein
Bach: A Strange Beauty
Simone Dinnerstein


Sony Classical
Rel. 18 Jan 2011

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On Thursday, December 16, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with acclaimed American pianist, Simone Dinnerstein, whose debut Sony Classics release is dedicated to the music of J.S. Bach – and carries the evocative title Strange Beauty. In this rich and fascinating interview, Ms. Dinnerstein discusses the background to this intriguing album – which mixes both genres and performance mediums: solo piano, piano transcription, and keyboard concertos (with the Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin). The two also discuss Ms. Dinnerstein’s acclaimed 2005 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and the unusual path that led to its release and impressive popular and critical success – as well as her studies with Maria Curcio and others, her impressive outreach projects, her unusual cross-genre collaborative project with singer/songwriter Tift Merritt, and much more. Don’t miss this terrific first interview of 2011 with a very creative musician!

“At a certain point, I realized that all the pianists I admire were those whose playing has a strong voice; I can't imagine that they were worrying too much about what their teachers might think. And so I just decided that I had to be brave, and to delve into discovering what the music meant for me – as opposed to defining myself in the context of my teachers.”
– Simone Dinnerstein

Nolan Gasser: Simone Dinnerstein, welcome to Classical Archives. It's a season of new things for you - just as we get ready to change the calendar: you have a brand new album coming out, and a new label for yourself, Sony Classical - so, congratulations on both accounts.

Simone Dinnerstein: Thank you.

NG: Let's start with the Sony release, which is dedicated to the music of J. S. Bach, and carries with it the evocative title, Strange Beauty. Now, when one thinks of the music of Bach, certainly "beauty" is something that comes quickly to mind, though the word "strange" perhaps less so. This title, as you pointed out, comes from a quote by Sir Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan philosopher; can you tell us a bit more about how Bacon's words convey to you something essential about Bach's music? And also, I'm curious as to the context in which you came upon this quote, and how you got from there to the music of Bach.

SD: My husband actually told me about the quote; it immediately struck a chord with me, and made me think of Bach - because, although we associate Bach's music with the ideals of perfect symmetry, mathematical patterns, and Baroque sequences, he often tends to deviate from those patterns and throw things for a loop: he'll have the harmonies take an unexpected shift, or slightly alter a sequence so that the voices suddenly are slightly out of step with each other; and it's these deviations from patterns that I think is what makes his music so special - and so beautiful.

NG: Indeed, for any composer who would attempt the technically challenging things that Bach writes - triple fugues, mirror canons, and the like - some deviation is inevitable; it's amazing, actually, how much he doesn't have to deviate, in a work like the Art of the Fugue, for example. The Bacon quote states that "there is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion," and it is a paradox of Bach's music, that there is such amazing beauty combined with such intellectual rigor. So, now that you've been living with this quote, is this notion penetrating how you're performing Bach's music.

SD: It's not so much that the quote has made me interpret Bach's music differently; rather, I think the quote reflected something that I already felt about his music, and which therefore seemed appropriate to me.

Another theme of this disc - and another aspect of Bach's writing - is how he tended to think less about specific instrumentation, and in fact often re-worked his compositions for different settings. For instance, the concertos here [Keyboard Concerto in F-, BWV1056 (tracks 2-4); Keyboard Concerto in D-, BWV1052 (tracks 12-14)] were originally written for other instruments [BWV1056 originally from a now lost oboe concerto, reconstructed as BWV1056R; BWV1052 originally from a now lost violin concerto, reconstructed as BWV1052R] - and then he took those same keyboard concertos and turned them into cantatas [e.g., the Sinfonia from Cantata No.156 adapted from Largo of BWV1056; the Sinfonia from Cantata No.188 adapted from third movement of BWV1052]. Similarly, the chorale preludes started off from cantatas ["Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ" from , "Jesu, joy of man's desiring" from Cantata No.147], and then later, in the early 20th century, various pianists transcribed them for piano ["Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ" by Ferruccio Busoni; "Nun freut euch, ihr lieben Christen" by Wilhelm Kempff; and "Jesu, joy of man's desiring" by Myra Hess]. Finally, the central piece on the disc, the English Suite [No.3 in G-, BWV808], is not a transcription, but the first movement is written in a concerto style - so it somewhat mimics the sound of a soloist with orchestra. I find this kind of flexibility in his music really compelling.

NG: Indeed, it is an intriguing part of the practice of the Baroque era - with other composers as well, notably Handel, frequently reusing their music for various occasions, and in different settings.

You actually went right into my next question, talking about the actual content of the CD. It's a very intriguing program, as you've highlighted: an English Suite, three piano transcriptions - by Busoni, Kempff and Hess - of works from cantatas and organ preludes, and two full keyboard concertos, which you perform with the Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin. That's not only an unusual mix of a repertoire, but of mediums as well - as you've mixed solo piano, with piano and orchestra. I've read how you like to construct unusual concert programs, and mix styles and even chronologies - but for a high profile debut on Sony, this is a pretty ambitious, and somewhat surprising, program. How did this program come to you, and what was Sony's reaction when you brought it to them?

SD: Well, I started talking about this program with Bogdan Roscic, the President of Sony, when we first agreed that I'd make a recording for them. I wanted to do an all-Bach disc, but I wanted to have more variety than is often the case. I didn't want it to be all of one thing or another - and I thought that this would be very interesting because of the recycling and reworking of material for different instruments that we spoke about; and also because I think there's the strong theme of his vocal music going through the whole disc - what with the chorale preludes and the concertos that he re-used in his cantatas. I also happen to think that many of the dance-like segments of the English Suite are very vocal in nature - they have such singing lines.

I thought that having the architecture of the disc in this way - opening and closing with a chorale prelude, and specifically starting from a point of real darkness and despair of the "Ich ruf zu Dir" and ending with this incredibly uplifting "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" was really interesting. Plus, I love the way the first chorale prelude goes straight into the dark F minor Concerto. And finally I find it interesting to hear these different textures of the piano: alone, sounding like an organ, sounding like an orchestra, and then performing with an orchestra; it makes you think about the instrument in a different way.

NG: It certainly does. And you've selected three different transcribers of these chorale preludes, including Myra Hess' brilliant transcription of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring". It seems that I've been seeing more of these mixed-medium programs in concerts recently - and now you've brought this to a disc; perhaps there's a new overall trend toward providing more variety to the ear, which is a good one, I think.

SD: Yes, I too think it is nice. I have seen some other discs that likewise have this kind of combination - maybe not quite going back and forth in the way this disc does, but having both solo and concerto works on one disc.

NG: Well, I've now had the pleasure of hearing the disc, and I must say that it does indeed have a wonderful arc.

There is already a strongly established link between yourself and the music of J.S. Bach, not least in the public's mind. You say in the video promo for this release, for example, how Bach's music makes you feel "clean", how it reflects like a crystal, and has a unique sense of breathing - doubtless, all part of its strange beauty. How has this new and varied recording affected your approach to Bach's music - that is, has it brought you any new insights into your own interpretation of his music, much as working through the Goldberg Variations was so transformative for you several years ago?

SD: I think that probably the biggest learning experience I had through this recording was working with the Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin - because I decided that I wanted to do it without a conductor; and so I had to really think through how I was going to be able to convey my ideas to a group of string players. And that made me think in a very detailed way about how I'm playing: for example, how I'm phrasing the music, and what that means for the strings and their bowing.

It was interesting because the concertmaster of the orchestra, Stephan Mai, is a specialist in authentic performance practice, and so his approach was naturally quite different from how I play - really almost the opposite. But he was so open to what I wanted to do, and it was really an incredibly joyful experience playing with him and the orchestra. It was a small orchestra, just 14 musicians, and they were all really excited about trying to take this different approach - which was somewhat going against all of their instincts about how to play Bach. But they really tried to work with me, and I feel like it was really successful what happened in the end. It was so exciting because it was so direct; I hadn't ever had an experience quite like it. Of course, I've had experiences of playing a concerto with a great orchestra and a great conductor, which is always exciting - but I never had this direct experience of having to tell them, "This is how I want to do it." I would play for them and they'd listen, and then they'd play for me without me playing, and I would listen to them. There was a real interaction and it was exactly what I had hoped would happen in terms of it being a dialogue between the orchestra and myself.

NG: With an orchestra that small and intimate, it's almost a mix between an orchestral and a chamber setting. It sounds as if they were very adaptive to your approach; but in this dialogue process, did you sometimes meet in the middle - where some of their performance orientation had an impact on your playing as well?

SD: Well, actually, I would have to say that this probably wasn't the case. The whole point of the exercise was to get them to play it how I wanted it to be played; and so what they were doing was working with me to figure out how they could do that. That is, to see how my ideas on the piano translate into string playing - which is naturally very different.

I had talked to quite a few string players before I went to Berlin to record the album; and I talked to conductor friends of mine as well to get ideas. But ultimately, every orchestra has its own way of approaching bowing - and so I had to work with them given where they came from, and then lead them into creating the interpretation that I envisioned. They were extremely malleable about this, and really excited - and the concertmaster, Stefan, was really intrigued by how I was playing. At the end of the session, he said that he felt like he was playing Bach with Schumann's daughter [laughs]; I thought that was a really nice thing to say.

NG: It certainly is - and that's a great visual.

SD: Another thing that was interesting about the session was that the Staatskapelle is from East Berlin; and though some of the younger members of the orchestra spoke English, many of them did not - including the concertmaster, who didn't speak any English, just German and Russian. So communicating was a very funny experience, because we had to speak the language of music to each other.

NG: Well, it is a universal one.

It is interesting to reflect on how this experience might have affected you - given that the Staatskapelle are specialists in period performance practice; and if this affected any perspectives on tempi or articulation; and I'm sure it was an interesting and growing experience for them. As I noted, this leads well into considering the experience of transformation that your own playing went through as you worked through the performance and recording of the Goldberg Variations. I'd thus love to talk a bit about that landmark 2005 recording - which is extraordinary, both in its musical qualities and also in the story that surrounds it.

We'll come back to the story itself in a bit, but I wanted to stay on the subject of style and interpretation. In preparing this interview, I was intrigued to learn two things about you: firstly, that you apparently didn't play too much Bach prior to working on the Goldberg - seemingly given the powerful shadow cast by Glenn Gould; and secondly, that you actually were a huge fan of Gould's interpretation of the Goldberg when you began working on the piece, as I assume you still are. This is surprising given how vastly different your version is from his: your performance is subtle, legato, and improvisatory compared to his very assertive and highly articulated approach. Can you talk about how, in the process of working through the piece, you came to discern your own distinct vision of how to play this piece - and, by extension, how you came to realize that your manner of playing Bach was, in general, different from that of Gould or anyone else?

SD: Well, I had studied Bach when I was a kid. I think it was when I was an early teenager that I became really obsessed with Glenn Gould - and that would then become problematic for me in terms of performing Bach, because I was so just blown away by how he played. Yet everything that he did was so idiosyncratic, and obviously not something that one could imitate. It really made me feel confused about how to imagine the music being played in any other way. A lot of teenagers tend to get pretty obsessive about things, and so I became obsessive about Glenn Gould - and that made me feel tongue-tied as to how to play Bach's music…

NG: "Finger-tied", perhaps…

SD: [laughs] Yes, "finger-tied" - or "mind-tied". As I got older, I started to listen to a lot more Bach - not just keyboard music, but I especially got interested in the cantatas and the Passions and the Mass in B minor. Getting away from listening to Bach on the piano, and focusing more on his string and vocal music, was a really important step for me, in terms of thinking about his music. Very interesting too was studying, as an older student, with Peter Serkin [at Juilliard], because he had a very different approach to playing Bach; he talked a lot about the differentiation of notes - of shaping long strings of notes. Bach tends to have these streams of eight or sixteenth notes, and the question is: how do you shape these phrases? This is quite different from just listening to Gould's playing, and the way he approaches the music.

This began to lead me to another place, as did listening to a recording of Bach played by Jacques Loussier and his trio - which was a real turning point for me, because suddenly I realized that Bach could go in so many different directions, and that it was all "acceptable", or at least extremely malleable. This didn't take away from enjoying Glenn Gould's way of playing Bach, but rather made me realize that there were so many more ways of playing his music as well.

So when I started working on the Goldberg Variations, I went through a lot of experimentation, of playing it many different ways; and it took quite a while for it to evolve into how I've come to play it. It was really a process of elimination: I would try different things - and eventually, certain approaches just did not feel right, while others started to feel natural and right to me. And when it consistently felt that way, it started to take a certain direction - and then I realized that actually this is how I thought of the music, and this is how I felt the music; it's like I had always felt it this way, and yet I hadn't really known it.

NG: So, at a certain point, the music itself started to tell you how best you should interact with it?

SD: Yes, certain things started to feel as natural as breathing or singing - and they were not at all how I'd heard them played. Yet, it felt so right to do it that way - when I was playing it myself - that I decided to really go in that direction. And ever since then, I've been on a certain path with Bach; and I think that my playing is getting even freer. I'm trying to really push those aspects of my playing as much as I can, to take more risks, and to explore - not worrying about whether or not it's right to play this way in the mind of an historian, but instead to think about what feels right to me.

NG: It almost sounds like you're being a sculptor, gradually chiseling the music to where it's wanting to go for you - and finding your true voice in playing Bach.

SD: Yes, exactly.

NG: I'm a bit curious: you began working on this when you got pregnant with your son [in 2001]; do you have any recollection as to how many months of experimentation until you had that epiphany - that suddenly it was sounding like you, and that you were getting in tune with your particular voice in playing Bach?

SD: I think it took quite a long time. I'm guessing it took me about a year to learn the piece, and my debut was in 2002, when my son was a year old. By that point, I felt like I was playing it in my own way - but it grew a lot more after that, even though I was already on the right track.

NG: This seems a very valuable lesson for all the young pianists out there trying to find their own voice - that it really is a process, and that you have to go through the phase of obsessing over your hero, before you rebelling against him or her - almost in a Freudian way…

SD: When we're taught, there's such an emphasis on "tradition", and the training of a classical pianist. I had very strong teachers, and I was very lucky with my teachers - but they all had very strong personalities, and I was a good student, so I wanted to play the way they wanted me to play. Being a student, and trying to become your own musician, is a really scary process - and it was especially frightening for me when I discovered that what I was doing was a bit unusual; at first I wasn't even sure if it was "allowed", if you know what I mean.

NG: As if you might be fined…

SD: Yes; I was still thinking about what Maria Curcio [her teacher in London] would say, or what Peter Serkin say, and then at a certain point, I realized that all the pianists I admire were those whose playing has a strong voice; I can't imagine that they were worrying too much about what their teachers might think. And so I just decided that I had to be brave, and to delve into discovering what the music meant for me - as opposed to defining myself in the context of my teachers.

NG: I think this is actually the goal of any great teacher, whether as a pianist or a composer - I think of Nadia Boulanger, whose big mantra was to help a young composer find his or her own individual voice; and when you think of Maria Curcio's roster of great piano students [e.g., Martha Argerich, Barry Douglas, Radu Lupu, and Mitsuko Uschida]: they're all so very different, and that's part of the genius of a great teacher - to help in this discovery process, even if it may not be obvious at the time of the lessons.

SD: With Maria, the process that I experienced is that you became her - that was how she taught, where everyone who studied with her sounded exactly like her while studying with her. I think that this is an effective way to teach if the student has a strong personality that can withstand it, without being totally crushed. I believe that some students were destroyed in this process - but I really wanted to be able to play like her, to have her sounds, and so for a time I lost myself in her. I learned so much about music and about playing the piano from going through this process; but then afterwards, I was able to move away from her while also keeping so many things that she gave me - which I then turned into things that became myself.

NG: You certainly have spoken about how transformative were your three years in London working with her - but also how tough she was; that she was not always terribly supportive emotionally, as you struggled through your many hours of practice each day, and constantly having to learn new repertoire.

So, let's return to the Goldberg Variations, and touch upon the path leading up to that fateful 2005 recording - which helped to catapult your career to its current heights. It's now pretty well known that yours is not the typical story of a concert pianist's career: that international success came somewhat late, and I guess even a bit surprisingly to you. I know that your father [Simon Dinnerstein] and uncle [Harvey Dinnerstein] are both well-established painters, and that early on you had to push to get piano lessons, and perhaps assert your destiny as a musician. Did you likewise study painting as a child, and was there some expectation that you would follow a career in the visual arts?

SD: No, not really; as a child I used to draw a lot - and when we traveled, we only traveled to see art. My parents always had me carry a sketchbook around, to copy paintings; I would always sit in different museums wherever we were and copy great works of art - and would create these very funny books of a six-year old's interpretation of Botticelli, and things like that.

But I was not gifted at drawing, and I discovered early on that music was my calling. My parents have been incredibly supportive about this, and they have really educated themselves about music. One of the most amazing things that they did - when I was 9 - was to surprise me by buying a grand piano; they spent all of their savings, and cleaned out their bank account to do it. That's an enormous thing to do for your child when they're that young; I think of my own son, who is almost 9, and the idea of spending everything I have to do something like that for him is pretty incredible. So, my parents have always been really behind me.

Still, the visual arts were really the most important art form in our household: my mother doesn't paint, but has a real interest in art as well; art is extremely meaningful to my parents, and so I grew up in a household dominated by that - talking about art, and going to museums and traveling to see different art shows. I think that this was a big influence on how I think about music as well.

NG: It's also wonderful the way that you're celebrating your father's talents on your website - which is a beautiful integration between your musical career and your father's paintings, which are really lovely. I was also at the Whitney not long ago, and saw one of your uncle's paintings there.

SD: Terrific!

NG: Well, all things happen for a reason - in terms of any particular career trajectory; and perhaps if your career had taken off in a more typical way, in your teens or early 20s, you might never have gotten involved in some of the wonderful outreach programs that you participate in - including the Piatigorsky Foundation, which has taken you to nursing homes and prisons, to great effect; but also your own Neighborhood Classics Program, which is centered at the Public School 321 in Brooklyn, and now expanding to other schools in Manhattan. I assume that this is something you are in for the long term?

SD: Yes, education means a lot to me; my mother was a public school teacher, and my husband is a public school teacher, and I believe very strongly in this. Supporting schools in New York - and giving something back to the community as a musician - is an important thing to do, and so the Neighborhood Classic Series has been really exciting for me. I've invited other musicians I know and admire to give concerts in the school. These are not school-time concerts, but are on the weekends; and so it's really for the families of the school, and it's open to the whole community. We have people from the neighborhood, and from the City [Manhattan] come as well - and all of the musicians donate their performances, so that the ticket sales can go directly to raising money for the school. The concerts are thus both fundraisers as well as warm and casual concerts. I host the programs: I'll interview the musicians on stage and we'll talk about the music between the performances. It's very much what I think a concert experience should be - it's not stiff, and there's a very diverse audience. I'm hoping that this will expand to other musicians, creating series in schools around the country.

NG: It's really very encouraging what you're doing - and, as you've mentioned, you're able to get your fellow musicians to donate their time. I saw that one of the musicians you had recently is cellist Maya Beiser - whom I've worked with: she performed a cello concerto of mine.

SD: Yes, she did an amazing concert with Pablo Ziegler; they played an all-tango concert.

NG: I love a statement of yours I read: that all artists should "adopt" an institution; I think that's a great notion. Is this, in fact, something you envision ten years out - that this will become a sort of national campaign; or are you going to keep it to your local area in New York?

SD: I'm working now on making into a non-profit; and I do think it would be great if it could become something on a national level. But the beauty of it is also that it's local, and thus my idea that musicians should be doing this locally around the country - that it should be grassroots, and with no overhead. In fact, there are almost no expenses - the only thing we have to raise money for is transporting the piano.

NG: Given the way that music is being cut in our schools, it's wonderful to give these kids and their parents such a rich cultural experience. Now, of course your connection to PS 321 is pretty understandable: your mom, as you've said, taught there, and you were a student there; and now your husband teaches there, and your son is a student. And so, if we keep the symmetry going, this means that in about twenty-five years, your daughter-in-law is going to be a teacher there, and your granddaughter will be a student...

SD: That's true [laughs]! Now, PS 321 is in Park Slope [in Brooklyn], in a pretty affluent community, even though it's a public school. Whereas, the school I just started working with, PS 142, on the lower east side in Manhattan, is a totally different community, where 92% of the students are on school lunch. So, it's mostly an immigrant population, and many of the kids are living in homeless shelters, or in foster homes. I decided that for this school, I was going to do programs that focused on the music of downtown composers - to get the hip and very artistic community of the lower east side involved, to help them become familiar with the school and its challenges. It's a bit of an uphill struggle; for the first concert, we had the American Contemporary Music Ensemble perform: there were some people from the lower east side who were obviously versed in contemporary music, but there was also a large number of people from the school itself - many from the Dominican population, who never heard anything like this before. It was really quite interesting, with everyone together listening to the music of Philip Glass.

NG: At least Glass' music is a bit more accessible for those not versed in contemporary music, compared with some others.

SD: Maybe; though while we may think of it as being a more accessible type of contemporary music, it's still pretty far from what most people are used to.

NG: Sure. Well, it's an uphill battle, as you say - but these are the battles most worth fighting; and I'm glad that we at Classical Archives are able to promote this concept through this interview, and hopefully get other musicians inspired to join you in the mission.

SD: That'd be great.

NG: So, thinking about what's coming up for you career-wise, I see you keep a very active performing schedule: you'll be promoting your new album starting in early January, with a concert in Seattle, and then off to Germany to perform with the Staatskapelle Berlin, and then back for some East Coast performances. I was also intrigued to read that you've got a whole bunch of concerts with the singer/songwriter Tift Merritt. This seems a bit of a change of pace; I know that you're a fan of pop and rock - you mentioned Bob Dylan and Beatles as favorites - but what exactly are you doing with Tift Merritt?

SD: We're putting together a program that includes some covers of songs that we like, mainly from the 1960s and 70s; we also commissioned three songs to be written for us: by Brad Mehldau, Philip Lasser, and Patty Griffin - who is another singer/songwriter. Then, we're doing some classical songs as well: by Schubert, Fauré, and Purcell. I guess we're going to see how we "meet" on this, given our different backgrounds - nothing's going to be "authentic". The covers that we're doing we had arranged for us by a wonderful musician named Jenny Scheinman; she has a classical violin background, but then became a singer/songwriter herself, playing jazz and other genres - and she has written some really interesting arrangements, where she explores how to connect Tift's and my styles… Tift also plays harmonica and guitar as well, and is a good pianist too, so we might do some four-hands material.

NG: Is anything that you're doing improvised, or is it all written out?

SD: Some of it is improvised - and that's new for me. I tried improvising on one of Tift's songs with her, and it was pretty exciting, so I think it's going to be great. She's an amazing musician, and I'm really curious to see how it's going to work out.

NG: How did you guys even connect?

SD: We first met a couple of years ago when I was featured in Gramophone Magazine; they decided they wanted a musician from a different genre to interview me, and Tift was selected. She interviewed me, and so I listened to her CDs - and I really loved them. We became friendly, and then we wound up going together with some other musicians to Columbia, Missouri - to do a concert for Obama during his campaign; we collaborated on a song there, and really enjoyed playing together. We thought it would be really interesting to try to work out a program together and see where it took us.

NG: That's how these things happen, and it sounds very interesting. I'm going to try to come out to Yoshi's Jazz Club (in San Francisco) to see you perform in late January.

SD: Oh great - yes, come and say hello!

NG: Finally, it would be great to get a little sense of what may be in your future, in terms of recording; I know that in addition to Bach, you seem to have a special predilection for the music of Schumann - being Schumann's daughter and all [laughs] - and Schubert; as well as Copland and Webern, among others. So, what can we look forward to in your future discography?

SD: The next disc is going to be a solo piano disc, with music by Bach and Schubert. I'm very excited about it.

NG: Yes, that's a nice combination! Well, thanks so much for your time, Simone, and congratulations on all the wonderful things happening for you.

SD: Thanks a lot; I look forward to meeting you.

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