Searching for truth and beauty
Classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein (pronounced See-MOHN-uh DIN-ner-steen) has teamed with alt-country performer Tift Merritt in an unusual and exciting project that includes a joint recording called Night. They will play together Saturday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Straz Center. Tickets are still available at 229.STAR (7827) and at www.strazcenter.org.
Here’s an interview with Dinnerstein, who started studying piano at age 7. A separate audio interview with Tift Merritt is available at http://tinyurl.com/Tift-Merritt-interview.
Straz Center: The New York Times said you made your career “by breaking every rule in the book.”
Dinnerstein: I think that’s a reference that I’ve not had a traditional career. The classical music world tends to follow a certain kind of template on how to build a career, which is winning contests or having some kind of strong patronage or having some kind of early success in your late teens or early 20s. And, for me, none of those things happened.
Straz Center: Here’s one example of that non-traditional career. In 2005, you raised money for your recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, picked the producer and only shopped it to labels when you were finished. It was picked up by the Telarc label two years later. Why that piece, which has been called “the Mt. Everest” of compositions?
Dinnerstein: It was a piece of music that I chose to learn back in 2001 when I was pregnant with my son. … After that I started performing it a lot. I felt it was a piece that was getting in my bones. I had something to say.
By Philip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Straz Center: You have great, literary titles for your recordings, like Bach: A Strange Beauty (2011)which features a quote from Sir Francis Baconand Something Almost Being Said (2012), featuring music of Bach and Shubert, which takes its title from the Philip Larkin poem (above).
Dinnerstein: The Bacon quote was talking about how that everything beautiful was strange in its proportion.
(“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”)
Dinnerstein: I think that what he was trying to say is that what makes something beautiful is the irregularity in it and I certainly feel that way about Bach because he’s working with perfect forms all the time. His music is all about patterns. He’s constantly breaking those patterns in different and subtle ways. And I think that that strangeness is what makes it so compelling.
Straz Center: NPR once said you play Bach as if you’ve never heard it before. “She compels the listener to follow her in a journey of discovery filled with unscheduled detours. … She’s actively listening to every note she plays, and the result is a wonderfully expressive interpretation.”
Dinnerstein: I think that the tendency in classical music is to have an extremely strong oral tradition, which is passed down through your teacher and your teacher’s teacher. There’s a really strong respect for tradition. While I think those things are extremely important and certainly as a student I was very tied to what my teachers were telling me, I think ultimately what makes something truly interesting and artistically unique is if you really look at a score yourself and try to forget everything you’ve heard … try to see what the music is telling you, what you think is interesting in the music. … And certainly when I listen to recordings or live performances of people I really admire, I admire them because the music is being channeled through them.
Straz Center: So you feel there’s not one real “truth” but many versions inside the music?
Dinnerstein: Absolutely, I think that’s why so many people play the same piece of music. If there was only one way to play it, there should only be one performance of it.
Straz Center: I read that you practice six to eight hours a day.
Dinnerstein: I try to.
Straz Center: I also read that you sometimes play in your sleep, on your husband.
Dinnerstein: So he says. I don’t remember that myself.
Straz Center: You’re doing this project with Tift Merritt. I believe you first met on her radio show The Spark and at the same time she wrote a magazine piece on you.
Dinnerstein: Then we started listening to each other’s music and having conversations and realized just how much we had in common. We started going to each other’s concerts. Then it evolved and we thought it would be really amazing if we could do something together. We weren’t really sure how that would happen or what it would look like. I had this vision of us doing this particular Shubert song … her singing in English and playing harmonica. That was the first song we worked on and it sounded exactly like I thought it would sound.
Straz Center: So you each play solo and also together, pieces from your repertoire and hers, as well as new pieces written specifically for this project.
Dinnerstein: It’s a very interesting kind of program that has a certain kind of flow to it. We’re really trying to digest all of the music in the way we interpret our own music. We have very interesting audiences because they come from both sides of the track, so to speak. For many of them, it’s the first time they hear a concert by the other person’s music.
Straz Center: You’ve done the recording and some live concerts for this joint project. What is that experience like for you, especially because you often play solo?
Dinnerstein: Actually playing by myself is the most free that I ever am in a concert. I control every aspect of what happens and the range of sound and timbre and color. It’s actually the most artistically interesting thing to do. Doing something like playing with Tift is a real challenge and very interesting.
“It felt at first that what it meant to be a classical pianist in this situation would mean that I would need to play a lot of notes — to show that I could play a lot of notes because that’s what I do all the time. And it didn’t work with Tift. It just got in the way. And it turned out that our meeting place was much more linked to sound and to color and to emotion. We had to start really listening to our instincts and following that, more than thinking, ‘What does it look like to put classical and alt together?’ ” – Dinnerstein speaking on NPR
Dinnerstein: She’s quite a different type of performer than I am in terms of the energy that she has. She’s so energized on the stage. She completely immerses herself in the music. It’s almost like she’s a “method” musician. I find that interesting and exciting, too. I have to become more like her when we’re playing.
Straz Center: On that radio show, Tift asked you a great question – almost Zen in its seeming contradiction – she saw you gathering yourself to play and she wanted to know “What were you not thinking?
Dinnerstein: The main thing in a concert is not thinking too much. For me it’s a problem if I’m over thinking or over aware. It’s a very fine balance between being lost in the music and having a kind of distance from the music. Some of the best concerts that I play I feel slightly outside of myself … I know where I am and know where I’m going, but I’m not inside of what I’m doing. … If I get too emotional or too caught up in every moment, I can lose the stream of the music.