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Goldberg Variations are golden ticket for pianist

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Lisa-Marie MazzuccoPianist Simone Dinnerstein makes her Aspen debut on Tuesday, July 22, performing Bach's Goldberg Variations.
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ASPEN ” For 16 years, from the time she was 13 till she was 29, Simone Dinnerstein admired from a certain distance the Goldberg Variations, J.S. Bach’s monumental, late-in-life piano work. As a listener, she embraced the music thoroughly, absorbing various interpretations of the music. But as a pianist, Dinnerstein left the Goldberg Variations to other interpreters ” especially Glenn Gould, whose recordings altered not only the perception of the piece, but of how Bach ought to be played.

“For a very long time, I revered Gould’s recording of it so much, I didn’t think I could add anything to it,” said Dinnerstein by phone, from Napa, Calif. “Gould was so convincing, I didn’t feel the need.”

Over time, Dinnerstein exposed herself to other recordings of the Goldberg Variations, which had been commissioned by the Russian ambassador to Dresden, and named for the harpsichordist who was to play the piece. Particularly enlightening was a version by Jacques Loussier, a jazz pianist who played the music in a trio. “I was struck by how unusual it was. It made me see the music in a different light,” she said.



Hearing the music in that unusual way unlocked the idea that Gould’s approach was so definitive as to exclude other interpretations ” including her own. At the age of 29, and pregnant with her son, Adrian, Dinnerstein learned the Goldberg Variations and introduced it into her repertoire.

At 32, Dinnerstein believed she finally had something to add to the previous body of interpretations. But she had no recording contract. Her career at the time was busy, with approximately 50 concerts a year, but was not high-profile, as she played at colleges, community centers, high school auditoriums. So she raised some $15,000 to pay for the March 2005 recording sessions at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.



“I had something I needed to say,” she said of her determination in self-financing the recording. “My interpretation was solidifying, and I wanted to document where I was.”

It took two and a half years from the recording date until Dinnerstein finally saw the release of the CD, on the Telarc label. It was worth the wait. Her “Goldberg Variations” quickly joined the list of the elite versions, landing atop Billboard’s Traditional Classical charts, and in numerous Best of 2007 lists, including that of The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. Her self-evaluation, that she brought something new to the 260-year-old composition, which Bach wrote as a set of 30 keyboard variations.

“I couldn’t have imagined that,” said Dinnerstein. “I felt personally it was a turning point in how I felt about myself as a musician. I felt something had happened in those sessions that was very important to me. I believed in those recordings.

“It took a lot of time to find a label. But I felt I said something that was important. If I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have had that persistence.”

Now 35, Dinnerstein finds herself with a far different career than she had at 30. She made her New York recital debut, at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, in 2005, with the Goldberg Variations. She has made, or will make, her recital debuts in Washington, D.C., Paris, London and San Francisco. She made her debut at the Berlin Philharmonie in November, performing not the Goldberg Variations, but Bach’s French Suite No. 5, Phillip Lasser’s Twelve Variations on a Chorale by Bach, and Beethoven’s jarring, dramatic Piano Sonata No. 32. The concert, which did feature one of the Goldberg Variations, No. 13, was recorded for CD, scheduled for release Aug. 26.

Dinnerstein returns to the Goldberg Variations when she makes her Aspen debut, on Tuesday, July 22, at Harris Hall.

Dinnerstein, who lives in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, speaks in a calm manner with little flair. The demeanor seems to match the arc of her career, which has unfolded slowly, to say the least.

Her lack of rushing is evident in her long-term relationship with what has become her signature piece. At 13, the New York City native was studying piano in the precollege division at the Manhattan School of Music, while she was also in her first year of high school in Brooklyn. She had zero familiarity with Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Finally, a friend played her Glenn Gould’s 1982 recording ” a well-received follow-up to the pianist’s 1955 version ” and it was love at first listen.

“I just fell in love with it,” said Dinnerstein. “I stopped in my tracks listening to the Aria [the first and longest of the 30 variations]. I remember the moment.”

Dinnerstein bought a copy of the music, and did almost nothing with it for a decade and a half.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to play it,” she said. “I just wanted to own it. Maybe fool around trying to play the Aria.”

Dinnerstein studied at Juilliard and in London, then embarked on the low-key, early phase of her career. She found it both challenging and satisfying.

“I played a lot for the Piatigorsky Foundation, in places where people don’t normally hear classical music,” she said. “That was an interesting thing to do. It had its challenges, especially playing on really bad instruments. But the people coming really wanted to hear music. That reminded me why we play concerts – to hear these incredible composers. In larger halls, there’s more of a disconnect between the audience and the performer. You don’t get the importance of the music.”

Dinnerstein now performs in the best halls, where the quality of the piano isn’t an issue. But there is stress involved, playing for more savvy audiences ” and especially playing for people who come with expectations of what they will hear.

“It’s been a very different experience. Suddenly, I’m playing for people who know my playing. That’s a lot more pressure, a lot more stress,” said Dinnerstein, adding that she expects the pressure to hit a crescendo in the upcoming season.

Still, she is comfortable with how her career has gone, and even grateful that she has been given time to develop her playing.

“I think I wasn’t ready before now, and I’m glad I had a chance to mature in my playing, especially the last six, seven years,” she said. “I would imagine it’s different than people who have a career at a very young age.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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