Simone Dinnerstein: Striking the Keys, Voicing Nuance
January 24, 2014
This is not a Cinderella story, unless there’s a part about Cinderella practicing and practicing her waltz for many years before she goes to the ball. Pianist Simone Dinnerstein, began her piano studies at age 7, and has worked consistently from that time, studying with some of the world’s greatest teachers, attending Juilliard School of Music, and doing the hard work in her 20s of creating a life as a working musician. But at a certain point in that life, things changed. Pregnant with her first child, working as a piano teacher and freelance artist in New York City, Dinnerstein took on the great challenge of preparing and recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a feat performed by numerous ambitious pianists since the invention of recording, including Rudolf Serkin, Daniel Barenboim, and Murray Perahia. It’s a project that many found worth attempting more than once — for example, Wanda Landowska, Peter Serkin, and, most famously, Glenn Gould, whose interpretation many consider to be definitive. What's remarkable about this story is that Dinnerstein’s self-financed recording, made on a 1903 Hamburg Steinway and released in 2007, went to number one on the Billboard classical music chart in the first week after its release by Telarc, an independent label. Even more than achieving substantial sales within the classical category, the album at one point was number four in Amazon sales for all genres of music.
Dinnerstein now manages a full international concert career and has released subsequent recordings as a Sony Classical Artist, offering unusual combinations of music (including that of contemporary composers) and accruing praise for her playing’s emotional intensity, sensitivity, and nuance. She continues to take her music to unexpected places and audiences, “Bachpacking” into New York City schools. Our discussion began with the topic of her ability to win a wide audience for classical music.
You’ve had enormous popular success, outselling pop groups like the White Stripes.
No, I don’t know if … I didn’t outsell the White Stripes.
I believe you did, on Amazon.com.
Well, just for a day.
OK, but for that day you did. Clearly, something is going on with your music that makes it break some of the barriers between classical and pop music, barriers that have been very solid for a long time. What do you think that is?
I don’t feel that I can really add anything to that. I don’t know why this has happened. It’s been really surprising to me, as well. I get a lot of emails and letters from people, and they tend to write about how they find the music very touching. I’ve had a number of people talk about personal experiences they’ve had in their life when they’ve found my recordings to be very supportive of them during those times.
I have to tell you right off the bat, I had that experience listening to your music, and I know that one of your teachers talks about the first time he heard you, when he and his wife had that experience, as well, of being moved to tears.
Harold Schonberg, who is in your lineage of teachers, called Artur Schnabel “the man who invented Beethoven,” and I wonder, are you striving to be the woman who invented Bach? Or can you put your finger on something you’ve learned, perhaps from Maria Curcio, or another teacher? Where do you become that true interpreter in such a distinctive way that, I think, could also be said of you and Bach?
Boy, I haven’t heard that quote before, and I think that Schnabel would be the first to deny that. Certainly, what I’m doing is a million miles away from the level that Bach had of actually creating this music. I think that I’m a reinterpreter of the music. Of course, [with] any composer, their music doesn’t exist until somebody plays it, and whoever plays it is seeing it through their own particular lens and so the music lives in many different ways, depending on who’s playing it. I think that with Bach’s music in particular, the interpretations can go in many different directions, and that’s what’s so fascinating about his music: that it can lend itself to many, many different points of view. I would say that his music lends itself to the most varying points of view out of all the composers that I know.
So I guess what’s interesting for me is that I grew up really being obsessed with Glenn Gould and thinking that I didn’t have anything to add, that Gould had the final word on Bach. Then, as an adult, I guess I started to get the confidence to think that maybe I should see what the music had to say for me [laughs]. Of course, I’d been studying Bach since I was a child and I had some amazing teachers. I studied quite a lot of Bach with Peter Serkin and he was really a very interesting person to study Bach with. But I think what was surprising to me was that when I started to really listen to my own musical voice, it turned out that the way that I felt Bach when I played Bach’s music was actually entirely different from Glenn Gould’s. That was a real revelation to me, that I could love how somebody plays Bach and yet it turns out that I play it so completely differently.
With Bach’s music in particular, the interpretations can go in many different directions, and that’s what’s so fascinating about his music.
I felt like I knew the Goldberg Variations. For a long time, they were my morning music, the first thing I would listen to every single day. But when I listened to your Goldberg Variations, I felt like this was a completely different piece of music, that it was like a very uninhibited conversation between close friends with just this very easy back-and-forth, completely comfortable switching gears when they felt like it, or opening up and being very emotional. You mention Peter Serkin, who was one of the first to record with period instruments or explore using period instruments. Will you explain your choice of using a 1903 Steinway and why you chose that particular instrument?
I used that particular instrument because it has such a singing and sustained sound, and I think of the music as being extremely lyrical, and really want to play that piano, especially with Bach, I wanted to sound as much like a singer as possible. So this particular instrument was very unusual in that it could sustain a singing sound for much longer than other pianos that I had encountered. So that enables you to really hear the counterpoint very well; you can hear how one voice is interacting with another voice and when there are suspensions or one voice is holding a note or creating a dissonance with another note.
I’m not a pianist, I’m a singer, so I like to hear that you want to sound as much like a singer as possible. Do you have an opinion about whether an injustice can be done to Bach in terms of tempos being so strictly consistent? One thing I did notice about your music was an ease with tempo choices, phrase to phrase. What was so exciting to me was that you were true to each phrase, not making it one big tempo choice for the whole piece. Do you think Bach is better served that way and less so by a strictly consistent tempo. Are we too strict, in general, about Bach as a style?
I think of the music as being extremely lyrical, and really want to play that [1903 Steinway], especially with Bach; I wanted to sound as much like a singer as possible.
I personally feel that the tempo should be free, and I don’t think that just about Bach. I think that about most composers, actually. But certainly, in his music, I think that the interesting thing about the pulse is that sometimes the sort of inner pulse of the music can be very large beats, and within that there’s quite a lot of flexibility. So you could even be thinking one measure at a time in terms of a pulse and within that measure there might be quite a variety of tempi.
So, I think that that’s how the music breathes, and if you’re singing and if you’re just … human, there isn’t really rigidity to tempo; there should be a feeling of ebb and flow. So I don’t really understand, there is one kind of school of thought that the rhythm and pulse should be motoric — like a motor. And I had a number of teachers who used that word in relation to Bach. I’ve never understood that. I don’t think his music has that in it. But I really don’t think there’s a right or a wrong approach to Bach. Personally, I feel the music to be this way but I certainly recognize the fact that there are many different points of view about how to interpret his music.
You have certain freedoms when you’re playing a solo piece and a different situation when you’re working with conductors. It’s a very sad week in the world of classical music with the death of one of the great conductors, Claudio Abbado.
How is it different for you when you are working with a conductor, and how do you make those adjustments? And, of course, if you have any thoughts about Maestro Abbado, as well.
Well, I think that working with a conductor and an orchestra is a lot more challenging. One of the main challenges is that there’s very little rehearsal time, so you have to very quickly be in agreement as to what kind of interpretation you’re going to take. Some conductors that I’ve worked with have been willing to go along with me in terms of my ideas about tempo.
Recently I worked with Andrew Manze and he was fantastic. We did a Mozart concerto with the Seattle Symphony, and he really was interested in my ideas about tempo and rhythm, and he was able to convey those thoughts really well to the orchestra. So it felt like a really unified performance. In other situations, I’ve really had to alter my approach so that I’m playing much “straighter,” and that’s sort of a practical necessity when you’re performing. But I do think that the older conductors, of Abbado’s generation and the generation before Abbado, had a feeling about flexibility and tempo. The younger generation tends to like faster tempos that are more consistent.
You chose to work on the Goldberg Variations specifically as a project to accompany your pregnancy, and it sounds as if it was a time of very dedicated, very sensitive kind of self-care. You mentioned a special diet and private yoga classes. I'd like to know how that experience of really incubating the Goldberg Variations and being pregnant affected you and perhaps you'd like to talk more about your private life as it affects you as an artist.
There is one kind of school of thought that the rhythm and pulse should be motoric — I had a number of teachers who used that word in relation to Bach. I’ve never understood that. I don’t think his music has that in it.
Well, I think that there isn’t really a separation between who I am as a musician and who I am as a person, and I think that there has to be a balance. For myself, I need a balance between the different parts of my life, and my family is the most important part of my life. So that period when I was pregnant was very special because at that time I had many fewer concerts and didn’t travel as much as I do now, so I had the time to really be very careful about my health, doing the yoga and all of that and practicing consistently and having the mental space to prepare for the change that was about to take place with having my baby. Now I think it’s much more challenging, because I travel a lot. My son is now 12 and he has a very active life at school and outside of school, and my husband is very busy; he’s a school teacher, and we have three very busy schedules that need to be managed, and so it’s much harder to take the care that I need to take of myself.
How about that period of time before you made the [Goldberg Variations] recording and after school?That can be a difficult period for anyone, as they’re hoping to find work in the field that they love. Going back to Peter Serkin; he gave up music, moved to Mexico to a small town with his wife and small child, and he heard Bach on the radio and he knew that he had to come back to music. Did you ever hit any kind of a low point or have a big moment like that with your music in the past?
Yeah, I think that up until I recorded the Goldberg Variations, and frankly even for the few years after I recorded it before I found a record label, (editor’s note: there was a gap of several years between the recording and the successful release) that was a very difficult period of time. I was getting older. I was in my thirties. And I basically had a life as a freelance pianist in New York City and that meant that I did a lot of private teaching of neighborhood kids, adults, I did some chamber concerts, some recitals, but I certainly didn’t have an international career and I didn’t have a manager and I didn’t have a record label, I was just trying to make ends meet as a musician. And that was a period of time when I had to really think about why I was a musician and how I felt about my future.
There is a very delicate balance between being the musician that you want to be and creating the products that you feel best reflect that, and also listening to the demands of the public and of your record company.I think that I came to the conclusion that I had to be happy with being a musician, that I felt that it was my identity to be a musician, and my identity was about the music and about me playing the music and that has to be what I base my feeling of myself on, not on some kind of success based on what other people thought of me and what I was doing in the public eye. That I had to be accepting of whatever I have, that I wanted to create a life in music and that could mean continuing on in the life that I had as freelance musician. And at that moment I thought, well, something that’s really important to me would be to record the Goldberg Variations. I thought that that was like an artistically important thing to do. And it was kind of a strange turn of events, that it was that moment when everything changed.
I have a friend, a huge fan of yours, said, “Even with material we’re used to hearing quite dryly played, she’s able to find layers of subtlety and nuance, especially on the solo suites and partitas — she’s drawn from Bach something that I just haven’t heard from other interpreters. It feels like it’s the composer’s subtleties, not hers.” I’d love if you could describe your relationship with Bach, specifically. Do you “talk” to him, how do you think of him, how do you relate to him as a person, or is it all the music and you leave the man out of it?
Well, that’s a really nice thing that your friend said. I prefer not to think about the person who wrote the music. Of course, I find it very interesting to know about the composers, and this past year I had a couple of trips to Leipzig and I was able to go to the Bach Museum and the Thomaskirche, and it was very exciting to be there where he lived and be up close to some of his manuscripts and all that. But I don’t really connect that to the music so much.
I think that I spend a lot of time thinking about the actual musical score and trying to understand what’s happening, what is interesting, what part of the counterpoint my ear is drawn to and why, and that’s what I think about more. And I imagine all the different sounds and how it would sound if it was not written for a keyboard instrument but if he had written it for a string orchestra or an oboe d’amore or for voice. I love listening to Bach works that are not keyboard works. I love listening to the cantatas and the Mass, so I’m thinking a lot about that. I never think about tacking something on to the music because I want to tack on a certain kind of sound. Everything is coming from where I feel the music is traveling at that moment, and I’m not thinking about anything but that and how to make that speak, really.
Is there anything you’d like to say about your other repertoire — perhaps your inclusion of Philip Lasser or contemporary composers and how you’re enjoying that, as well?
Yeah, I’m just about to play a program here, actually, in New York where I’m doing the 15 Inventions of Bach, and then I’m playing the piece that was written for me by Nico Muhly, and then I’m playing a piece by George Crumb, and then I’m doing Beethoven [Sonata] 111. And I really like that program. I enjoy playing programs where there’s no chronology and it’s just about the music from one composer speaking to another composer and that happens across time and country and you know all of these different boundaries that we have in our heads about music. So I think that I approach all music in this way that I described about Bach, in that I spend a lot of time with the musical score and trying to absorb it and understand it and experiment with it. That’s one of the things that I really learned a lot from Peter Serkin. He’s an incredibly inquisitive musician. He’s always looking for answers and ways of making the music come to life, and I think that’s something that I’m doing and all of the musicians that I really enjoy listening to. They’re on a kind of quest to bring out the meaning that they hear.
You live in New York, and you founded something called Neighborhood Classics. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and your “Bachpacking” through public schools?
Yes, the concert series is an evening concert series that’s held in two schools, one in Park Slope and one on the Lower East Side, public elementary schools. I started with the one in Park Slope; it’s a school I feel very connected to. My husband teaches there, my son went to school there, I went to school there, and my mother taught there. It’s kind of a neighborhood hub. It’s huge; I think they have 1,500 people there. I just was thinking about creating a concert series in my own neighborhood, where people knew me. I felt that would be a way of drawing people in to hearing classical music that they felt a personal connection to, that it was easy to get to a place that they naturally went to anyway.
So I invite other musicians to perform and I host all of the concerts, so I interview them from the stage and all of the musicians donate their performances so that all of the ticket sales benefit the school. It’s been a really wonderful series. All the concerts are full and a diverse audience and it’s been a great addition to our neighborhood. And the “Bachpacking” was something I came up with. I often do school presentations but they’re in auditoriums and for 200 kids, and I really wanted to go into classrooms and play and talk to the kids in a smaller setting where it could be much more interactive and I could do different kinds of exercises with them. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if I could just strap a piano on my back and go from one school to the other? So I talked to Yamaha and they agreed to collaborate with me on this, and they lent me a digital keyboard to be able to do this, and it’s perfect; it works quite well for Bach. This past week I think I visited nine different schools all over New York City, and I gave three presentations at each school; each was, like, 40 minutes long. It was quite an intense week.
One New York Times article on you had the headline: “How Do You Move a Career Into High Gear? By Breaking the Rules.” How would you describe your personality and temperament? Are you a rule breaker? This is also about growing up in an artistic household, because your father is a painter.
I think that my father is a pretty hard act for me to follow, because he is a real purist about art. He is completely noncommercial. What he does is, he only paints what he wants to paint. He doesn’t respond at all to the market and what the market wants. And that’s a very hard road that he’s taken, but it’s an extremely admirable road. My road is more commercial, in that people need to buy the CDs, and if people don’t buy your CDs, the record company doesn’t want to release your records anymore. So there is this delicate balance between being the musician that you want to be and creating the products that you feel best reflect that, and also listening to the demands of the public and of your record company.
Anything on the horizon that you want to talk about?
I’m actually in the beginning talks with a dancer, and we’re going to be doing a collaboration together, and I’m very excited about that because I’ve never worked with a dancer before. Her name is Nora Chipaumire. She is a contemporary dancer from Zimbabwe, and she’s pretty amazing. We’re going to be doing a collaboration of Bach and I think this is going to be a fascinating process because she’s coming at it from a completely different angle. I think it will be very interesting to see the music through her eyes.
Lisa Houston is a writer and classical singer. She divides her time between Berkeley and Berlin.