Enjoying all of life's `Variations'

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein's Bach recording is bringing her sudden fame, but she is ready

September 09, 2007|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,Sun Music Critic

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.

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