Enjoying all of life's 'Variations'

The Baltimore Sun

A couple of years ago, pianist Simone Dinnerstein barely registered on the name-recognition scale. She had no management, no publicist, no high-profile concert engagements.

But when the New York native took a bold, do-it-yourself approach to career-building, things started to change.

In 2005, she raised $15,000 from friends to make a professional recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, and $6,000 more to rent out Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall to perform the demanding piece live in a concert that drew raves. In short order, the pianist gained a management company, signed an exclusive contract with a major record label and garnered praise for her Bach CD.

Last week, the 34-year-old pianist's recording of the Goldberg Variations, released by Telarc, sat at the top of Billboard's classical chart. The recording also enjoyed a ride at the top of iTunes classical downloads for a while and reached as high as No. 3 on Amazon's general - not just classical - best-seller list.

O, the Oprah Magazine issued an ecstatic plug for the disc, while glowing features in The New York Times and Slate Magazine added to the Dinnerstein momentum.

The pianist makes her Baltimore debut today playing the Goldberg Variations in the intimate concert room of An die Musik, a gig booked months before the waves of attention for Dinnerstein started rolling.

"At the beginning of the summer, we couldn't sell a single ticket," says An die Musik owner Henry Wong, "but last week we had a waiting list and were trying to figure out how to squeeze more seats in to meet the demand."

Ahead of Springsteen

The suddenness and rapidity of Dinnerstein's move into the spotlight seems to surprise her as much as anyone.

"This week has been especially surreal," she said a few days ago from her home in Brooklyn, "when I heard that the Bach recording was ahead of Bruce Springsteen on Amazon's chart. I certainly never expected that.

"I always wanted this CD to reach out to a bigger audience, even people who have never heard the Goldberg Variations before," she said, "and it seems to be actually doing that."

(Amazon's best-seller list is updated hourly. Dinnerstein's CD eventually dropped in the ranking, but last week it was still the only classical release among the top 100 recordings sold by the online company.)

Even a faint flicker of fame can turn an artist's head, but Dinnerstein seems to be keeping hers. "I'm still doing the laundry," she said with a laugh.

"And I took my son to the first day of first grade today. I try to be normal."

The pianist, who lives with her husband and son in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn where she grew up, doesn't speculate about the next phase of her career. "It's just fun and exciting that it's happening," she said. "I am who I am."

Among the characteristics that help define Dinnerstein is an unapologetically individualistic approach to making music.

"When I was a child, that was what stood out - not my facility, but my personality," she said. "I just play how it feels naturally to me, not to make a point. I've always been aware of the fact that I have a strong personality in my playing. To this day, that gets a very mixed response in people."

A strong impulse

Her approach to the hour-plus Goldberg Variations - 30 astonishingly brilliant transformations on an elegant and haunting "aria" that begins and ends the piece - is a telling demonstration of Dinnerstein's style.

"This is my kind of Bach playing," The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns, one of the most discerning music critics in the business, said last week.

"It's very subjective and very instinctual. The wonderful thing about Bach is that he can withstand almost any reasonable, thoughtful interpretive impulse," Stearns said. "And I find Dinnerstein's interpretive impulse unusually strong."

That impulse is felt right at the start of her recording - she takes the aria at an unusually broad tempo and in an unusually dreamy mood, creating a poetic glow that permeates the entire performance, even through the virtuosic passages.

Dinnerstein's interpretation is likely to define her for a long time, just as a very different one came to define legendary pianist Glenn Gould, whose career was launched with a recording of this work in 1955. It was Gould's second recording of it, made in 1981 and more mellow than the first, that hooked Dinnerstein on the Goldberg Variations.

"I was 13 and I still remember the friend's house where I first heard it," the pianist said. "When the aria started, I felt the music was speaking directly to me. I had never heard anything so pure. I was going through a lot of craziness in my head at the time, as many adolescents do. The music stopped me dead in my tracks and calmed me down."

Years later, as an expectant mother, Dinnerstein renewed her affection for the Goldberg Variations in a big way.

"I wanted to learn a major piece when I found out I was pregnant," she said. "I wanted the baby to hear it, to connect the two things in some way. But I felt very wary of playing Bach because of Glenn Gould. I felt I didn't have anything as interesting to say.

"Then I stopped listening to him. I had to let go of everything I had heard and just listen to what was in my head. It was a long process, one I'm still going through, and will probably go through forever."

Dinnerstein performed the Bach opus several times before deciding to commit her interpretation to disc.

"I felt very connected to this CD," she said. "After I made the recording, it was like sending your child out into the world, not sure what it is going to do."

Staying balanced

Dinnerstein would have gladly headed out into the world herself when she was young. At 15, after a school trip to London, she wanted to live there and study with Maria Curcio, a pupil of the eminent Artur Schnabel. Her parents said no, just as they did when, around the same time, their daughter had an opportunity to enter the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

"They didn't want me to be away from home at that age," Dinnerstein said, "which was a good decision for them to make. I think I needed my parents around me then. They were not focused on me developing a career, but on being a musician and having a rounded life. They were always trying to keep me balanced. They didn't want to push me or rush me."

Instead, at 16, the budding pianist entered the Juilliard School across the bridge in Manhattan. Two years later, she dropped out and made it back to London, where she fulfilled her desire to study with Curcio. After three more years, she returned to Juilliard and earned a degree, studying with Peter Serkin (Rudolf Serkin's son).

Dinnerstein was then in the same boat as many a music-school grad - talented and finely honed, but with few opportunities. "I didn't have management, so that limited the number of performances," she said. "I did a lot of outreach concerts in small towns."

The competition route, frequently taken by young pianists eager for a leg-up on the career ladder, was not very tempting.

"It was difficult for me to play for a bunch of people with clipboards," she said. "That freaked me out."

Purer goal

Still, it looks like things have worked out for the best.

"It has been an interesting circle," Dinnerstein said. "When I was a little kid, I had a romantic vision of what it meant to be a concert pianist, traveling to all the major concert halls. When I was in my 20s, it was not working out that way, and I started to change my idea of what it meant to be a musician."

For Dinnerstein, the goal became purer and simpler.

"It wasn't about the prestige," she said. "It was about being able to perform a wide variety of music and share it with people. It didn't matter where.

"Then, because of the Goldberg Variations, really influential people started getting interested in me, and I'm now starting to have the career I thought about when I was a kid. But if things were to change, that would be OK. I know I'll always be a musician."


Local show

Simone Dinnerstein performs Bach's Goldberg Variations at 3 p.m. today at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. There is a waiting list for tickets. 410-385-2638

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