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Music In Conversation

SIMONE DINNERSTEIN with Alessandro Cassin

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s path to success reads like the proverbial fairy tale. In 2005, the Brooklyn native and resident, after years of playing in smaller concert venues, community centers, and a medium-security prison, raised $15,000 and self-produced a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Her Weill Recital Hall debut that year received a glowing review in the New York Times. In 2007, Telarc released Dinnerstein’s version of the Goldberg Variations, which brought her instant international acclaim. The recording was at #1 on the Billboard classical music chart in its first week and appeared on a number of “Best of 2007” lists, including those of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the New Yorker.

This summer Dinnerstein released a recording of Beethoven’s complete works for piano and cello with Zuill Bailey. In August she performed the Goldberg Variations to a sold-out audience at Lincoln Center, and she is currently preparing her Vienna debut. This season she will also perform Bach’s D Minor Concerto with the Minnesota and Atlanta symphonies as well as the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. Though Bach remains a centerpiece, Dinnerstein’s repertoire also includes music by contemporary composers like Philip Lasser.

Dinnerstein’s dream would be to start a foundation in New York City through which musicians could adopt local institutions like schools and hospitals and organize concerts in their own communities. She has started such a program in the Brooklyn public school that her son attends.

Alessandro Cassin (Rail): Your story defies many assumptions about the steps toward success. Is there anything you want to correct about how it’s been portrayed?

Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.
Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

SIMONE Dinnerstein: I think the way my story has been told is actually accurate. What is missing is that I did not have a plan for this to happen the way it did. There was a string of fortuitous events in which I was making choices and decisions without a clearly thought-out strategy. That led to where I am today. It was highly unlikely and totally unexpected. For all these reasons I doubt that one could draw general conclusions.

Rail: There were many setbacks before the release of the CD...

Dinnerstein: Even Telarc, the label that finally released it, had previously rejected it. The person in charge of marketing later told me that she didn’t like the Aria so she stopped listening and never went back to it. I submitted it to many other labels, but even when people liked it, they were unwilling to take the risk.

Rail: Nobody wants to be burned.

Dinnerstein: I think the problem with the industry is that it is such a dying one. There are so few record sales, and the record companies are driven by concerts. With me it was a kind of chicken-and-egg situation: My point to the record companies was that if they released it, I could get more concerts, and then they might sell more, but it was difficult for them to see my point.

Rail: Without the recording of the Goldberg Variations you might not have had a career?

Dinnerstein: I think the recording brought it all together.

Rail: The Goldberg Variations are such a monumental work; when and how did you decide, “OK, I’m ready, I’ll take it on”?

Dinnerstein: I remember the exact moment. I had won the audition for a place called Astral (which helps young musicians in Philadelphia). The prize was a debut recital and I could choose my program. So I was thinking about how to structure it. One evening in the car, we were driving back with my husband from some concert and talking about what I might play in Philadelphia, and we thought about the Goldberg Variations. Actually, one of the things that initially drew my husband and me together was that we both loved Glenn Gould’s recording of the Variations. We were huge fans and talked about it all the time.

Rail: How long did you have to prepare?

Dinnerstein: I had to postpone the recital because of the birth of my son Adrian, so I guess I had about two years’ time. I learned it while I was pregnant and when my boy was a baby.

Rail: Your father was also an inspiration.

Dinnerstein: My father, Simon, is an artist, and very idealistic and uncompromising about his art. When he was twenty-nine, right out of art school, he executed an enormous triptych fourteen feet wide, which is now at Penn State University. On one panel there is my mother holding me as a baby, the middle panel is my father’s studio, and the third panel is my father himself. I always had this in my head as an example of a very gutsy, ambitious statement made by him as a young artist. My father has been a lasting artistic influence. The way he talks about art is very similar to the way I think about music.

Rail: Do you remember your first listening experience with the Goldberg Variations ?

Dinnerstein: Certainly! I was thirteen and there was a boy on whom I had a really big crush. He used to introduce me to books and stuff and was one of my first friends to have a CD player. One day he put on Glenn Gould playing his second recording of the Variations. I remember being in his room and listening to the Aria in particular, and thinking I had never heard anything so moving in my life. Listening to that music was truly an epiphany.

Rail: As you began tackling this masterpiece yourself, do you think that the towering example of Gould or other great recordings of it were helpful or intimidating?

Dinnerstein: I was obsessed, I mean really crazy about Glenn Gould (I had every recording he ever made), so I did feel intimidated about playing Bach for many years. I had to play it in school but never felt I could offer anything original. Then, in my early twenties, I studied with Peter Serkin for three years. He too had been influenced by Gould, but he came to Bach from a different place. The opportunity to play Bach with him allowed me to explore and think about Bach’s music in a new light. And though I perform Bach very differently from Peter, he helped unlock something.

Rail: The first thing that one notices in your interpretation is the slowness with which you approach the Aria.

Dinnerstein: One of the things that made the Aria a lot slower was the piano I recorded it on. It is a 1903 Hamburg Steinway with a particularly lyrical sound. That piano can sustain magnificently, so playing it slower makes a lot of sense. When I worked on the piece, it became a process of elimination. I would try playing many different ways. Each time I would find things that I liked, or, more often, didn’t like. Then I realized that my playing was going in a certain direction. My biggest challenge as a musician is to listen to what is in my head. I think I have a very strong idea of how it feels natural to play, so the difficulty is to keep clear and distinct what is in my head from what is coming from somebody else.

Rail: What were your guiding principles?

Dinnerstein: I found that I wanted a lot of space in the music, a lot of breath. I did not want it to be metronomic but to have a pattern of speech to it. A constant pulse was not what I was going for. Things slowed down because of that. I find that when music is very counter-punctual, very polyphonic, which most of the Variations are, if it is played too fast I cannot hear all the voices, or not as clearly.

Rail: Other than the two Glenn Gould versions, are there other recordings of the Goldbergs that have been important for you?

Dinnerstein: Rosalyn Tureck made a stunning recording of it in William Buckley’s living room. I listen to that one a lot. I had that on when my son was born. Another version that was very important to me is by Jacques Loussier, recorded with a jazz trio, perhaps the most freeing for me. What he does is so imaginative! He gets the essence of it.

Rail: How has your performing and thinking about the Goldberg Variations changed since your 2007 recording?

Dinnerstein: I would say that I come at it from the same place, but it has definitely changed. I had a funny experience one day when I turned on the radio and heard it, and I thought it sounded familiar, but wasn’t sure if it was me. It was! I don’t play it quite like that any more.

Rail: Were you pleased with your performance at Lincoln Center this August?

Dinnerstein: I was very pleased. I think I have become more courageous in terms of taking time, in the spacing between the variations and within the individual variations. In the performance at Lincoln Center I felt I paced myself really well. In the past I felt exhausted by the time I was only halfway through, and then it’s really hard to regain the energy level.

Rail: Bach wrote this music for the double-manual harpsichord. What do you feel is lost and gained in performing it on the piano?

Dinnerstein: I am a pianist and I’m not crazy about the harpsichord. It sounds monochromatic to me. What I do think is interesting about harpsichord players and that a lot of pianists have lost, is the feeling of rubato, of how playing with rhythm is expressive. On the piano you can be expressive by using color or dynamics or touch, but that doesn’t exist as much on the harpsichord.

Rail: What is your definition of the role of the musical interpreter?

Dinnerstein: You need to look at the score. All of your ideas have to come from there; that’s where it originates. But I don’t think it lives in the score: You have to bring it to life in a performance. It’s the interpreter’s responsibility to bring as much imagination as possible. What I don’t like is when a pianist calls attention to himself as opposed to the music. I am really not interested in historical performance practice. I am really interested in how something is put together. Talking to a composer about how he has constructed a piece of music—that’s what I find fascinating. When I look at a piece like the Goldberg Variations, I start to notice compositional technique and that will inspire how I will interpret the music.

Rail: Today Bach’s music seems to have secured its place in both highbrow and popular taste. Yet for long stretches of historical time it was really out of favor. How do you explain that?

Dinnerstein: I think his music has often been misunderstood. A lot of people see his music as being very dry, mathematical, non-emotional. And I feel that his music is extremely emotional, even sensual, but with a kind of religious fervor. I think people might not have always played Bach that way, and if you don’t perceive it that way, then it can seem like an exercise in composition. There is so much craft—you can get lost in it instead of thinking about what he is trying to say with all that craft.


Alessandro Cassin

Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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