Sounds Of Freedom

Pianist Who Has Played Concert Halls The World Over Takes Time Out To Perform At The Jessup Women's Prison

October 24, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,

As a child, Heather Patterson played the piano. She's always loved opera and classical music. But that was a long time ago, before she wound up in prison on drug charges.

Yet those memories came back Friday as renowned classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein performed selections of Schubert and Bach for about 46 inmates of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

"Listening to you play brought me back to a good time in my life," Patterson, 32 and originally of Hagerstown, told Dinnerstein. "You reminded me of me - maybe not the me I am now, but the me I once was. People look down on us because we're inmates. They look at us as undesirables. So I want to thank you for treating us like other people."

The pianist in the area this weekend to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has acquired a reputation for her eagerness to perform classical music for people who don't usually get to hear it, such as prison inmates and nursing home residents, and for children in foster care.

"Concerts don't just belong in concert halls," she says. "A lot of people can't get to symphony halls for economic or other reasons. I consider myself a missionary for classical music."

Providing even an ordinary pleasure to an incarcerated population requires an extraordinary effort. Institute officials have tried hard to bring cultural activities to 820 women residents, including past performances of a Shakespeare theater troupe, and such well-known gospel singers as Christopher Tate. But Friday was the first time in recent memory that a live concert of classical music had been performed inside the guard towers and barbed-wire topped walls - let alone the first time that a 6-foot long Steinway piano had been taken apart and then reassembled in the prison's library.

"There were a lot of logistics involved in figuring out how to get a piano through security," said Jeff Counts, the symphony's vice president of artistic planning, adding that the concert was part of the symphony's efforts to expand its audience and to bring classical music to under-served populations. "Despite the hurdles, the Baltimore Symphony believes that all people should have access to great art."

No, the piano didn't have to be carried through metal detectors, and there were no bomb-sniffing dogs. But the truck that delivered it was searched before entering the prison grounds and before leaving, and the musical instrument itself was subject to a thorough scrutiny. Guards opened the Steinway's lid, and conducted a visual inspection of every cavity large enough to hide a concealed weapon. Finally, work crews removed the piano's four legs and maneuvered the body through the front door and inside the library.

Just before the concert, Carroll Parish, the prison warden, announced that Dinnerstein is "one of the top pianists in the world," and there were audible gasps from the inmates. The soloist has performed at some of the world's top venues, from Carnegie Hall in New York to Vienna's Konzerthaus, and two of her recordings have attained the No. 1 spot on Billboard's classical chart. She performs tonight at the Music Center at Strathmore and tomorrow at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Dinnerstein interspersed her musical selections with her own down-to-earth reflections on what the pieces mean to her. Of Schubert's "Impromptu in E Flat, Opus 90," she said: "All of his music, regardless of whether it's written for voice, for one or two instruments or a whole orchestra, always sounds like a song to me."

Of Bach's "French Suite No. 5 in G Major" she said: "Bach has been an enormously important composer for all types of musical genres. There are chord progressions in his work that you'll hear repeated in pop songs and, especially, jazz."

As is true of any classical concert, the audience exhibited a range of responses. The group was uniformly quiet, attentive and polite, and knew not to applaud in the pauses between different songs in the suite.

Some of the women sat with their hands clasped in their laps. Others were more engaged. One woman drummed out a rhythm in one of songs on her thigh, while the facial expressions of some audience members mirrored Dinnerstein's. During slow passages, the women sat back and seemed to enter a dreamy state. When the tempo picked up, they leaned forward in their chairs and smiled at their friends.

A lively question-and-answer session followed the performance:

What are the Steinway's pedals used for? (Dinnerstein gave a quick demonstration.) Has she had a particularly influential teacher? (She recited the lineage of her famous instructor, Maria Curcio, and of Curcio's instructors, culminating with "So, as you can see, I'm less than seven handshakes removed from Beethoven.") "Do you ever work with singers?" (Dinnerstein's disarmingly candid reply: "Sometimes I work with singers, but I have to say they're a very flaky bunch.")

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