Internationally acclaimed pianist Simone Dinnerstein knew from the moment she started playing piano at age seven that she wanted to make piano her career. “From that moment, I was telling everyone this is what I’m going to be, I’m going to be a pianist.” Her passion and dedication as a pianist is clear, both in listening to her play, and in speaking with her, as I recently had the privilege to do.
Her latest album, Circles, features a new piano concerto by Philip Glass composed specifically for Dinnerstein, which is paired with a Bach concerto. I asked Dinnerstein how the idea for this new concerto came about, and how they decided to pair it with Bach.
A few years ago, Philip Glass invited me to his home for breakfast, and it was very exciting to meet him and get to talk to him for the first time, and during that conversation we touched on the idea of him writing something for me. Following that, I came up with the idea of him writing a piano concerto for piano and string orchestra, which is a combination which hasn’t been done that often since the Baroque period. And I thought it would be interesting for him to compose a concerto which would be written to be paired with the Bach G minor keyboard concerto, and he really liked that idea, so that’s how it began.
Once the idea was formed, the next step was finding orchestras for the commission. “The whole thing evolved into something very beautiful where twelve smaller orchestras co-commissioned to make this concerto come to life. None of these orchestras would have been able to do a commission like this on their own.” This collaborative effort allowed these smaller orchestras the opportunity to work with Philip Glass and present their own local premieres of the concerto.
The orchestra featured on Circles is the Grammy-nominated A Far Cry, a conductor-less chamber orchestra from Boston. Dinnerstein began playing with them a few years ago and enjoyed working with them, describing them as “very daring and experimental and…very active in the music making, everybody has a voice.” Because they are a self-conducted group, Dinnerstein says working with them is “really like playing chamber music, but with 18 people.”
Preparing the music was an exciting time for Dinnerstein and A Far Cry. They received the music in July for a September premiere, meaning rehearsal time was intense. Dinnerstein especially enjoyed that A Far Cry were open to “leaving things hanging.” She explains that in the third movement, they decided to take an improvisatory approach. “We didn’t plan how we were going to play every part of it. We decided that we were going to try to respond to each other in the moment. So each performance that we had was slightly different, and in the recording also, we tried it different ways.”
Preparing a brand new piece of music that has never before been recorded or played allows the performers to start with a clean slate. There are no famous interpretations to be influenced by, no standards of performance already set. To me, this sounds both exhilarating and intimidating. Dinnerstein believes every piece of music should be approached this way, as if it were brand new.
I think that’s a problem with the way we approach music that we’ve heard many, many times is that we’re extremely influenced by tradition, and when you’re playing a new piece and there’s no tradition, it forces you to look at the music closely and to have an authentic response to the music, which is your own. And that’s something that I think should happen with Bach and Beethoven, and not just a new piece by Philip Glass.
With an international performance schedule and eleven albums to her name, Dinnerstein’s career is impressive and continually on an upward trajectory. “I always felt that this was who I am.” Still, the reality of a career as a concert pianist is different from the dreams of a young girl. She describes the reality of concert life candidly and with humor.
As a kid, I thought a lot about the glamour of performing, a sort of romantic image of it which was largely based on films. And you know, the truth of it is, yes, you might play in this incredible – it’s amazing to go play, you know, in the Berlin Philharmonie – but you also are going to be jet lagged….I’m not a great traveler, I like my routines and I don’t like being in different beds and that kind of thing, and that’s a major part of my life. I have to overcome those little idiosyncrasies that I have about traveling.
But perhaps the biggest surprise for Dinnerstein is a more introspective realization. “I thought that the end result was the concert, and now I’m not really sure that that’s how I feel. I think that how I’m changing, how I change how I feel about music, or how I grow, how the music is growing deeper in me is something that I value – I think I value that the most.”
Circles takes us from the very modern, Glass, to the very beginning, Bach, and enables us to see the connections between the two – the same idea of a piano concerto, but two very different pieces. It makes me think of Dinnerstein’s career – something she always knew she’d do, and now she is doing it. The same dream, but viewed differently as an adult versus as a child. I think she sums it up best: “It’s a very weird thing to be doing the thing that you said you were going to do when you were seven.”
– Submitted by Erin Yousef, Music Design