It's safe to say that the Goldberg Variations changed Simone Dinnerstein's life.
Here's the story: She took on the task of learning the Variations as a project chosen to accompany the nine months of her pregnancy. She emerged from the experience with a son, Adrian, and a deep connection to the piece of music that she had long admired in Glenn Gould's hands and had now made her own. She self-produced a recording of the work which was remarkable enough to make managers return her calls and to fill her calendar with concert dates. She performed the Goldbergs in her self-presented Weill Hall debut recital, to a full house and the blessing of the New York Times. In 2007, Telarc released her recording of the Goldbergs, and the world took notice.
It's a story, with its mix of DIY determination and fairytale good fortune, that has captured imaginations in musical circles and beyond. But it's Simone's musicianship - deeply personal, sometimes unorthodox, always committed - that resonates with listeners, in concert and on disc.
Simone's concert and recording projects have taken her in many new directions. during these last few years. Her latest CD Something Almost Being Said: Music of Bach and Schubert, was released on Sony Classical in January. But I asked her to go back with me to the Goldberg Variations and all the beginnings they represent in her life, musical and otherwise:
Lara: One of the things that's interesting to me about your journey with the Goldbergs is the time in your life when it started, during your pregnancy with Adrian. I know you had your own challenges, as we all have, in finding your own personal way with the piece. Do you think the condition of being pregnant and immersed in that totally new journey was essential to your process?
Simone: Looking forward to becoming a mother was a very important part of the process to me. I felt that I was, in a sense, coming of age and able to face the challenge of learning such a challenging and meaningful piece of music.Lara: You’ve referred to the notion of "playing for yourself" having acquired new dimension when you were pregnant, and I really related to that. When I was pregnant, I felt both more connected to myself, and more independent, than at any other time before, and I remember feeling very strong in my musical choices at that time.Simone: You feel like you are a little world of your own.Lara: Yes, really. Can you articulate some of the truths about the Goldbergs, in particular, that emerged in that little world, for you?Simone: I don't know how much of my musical decisions were directly related to being pregnant. But I did feel that I needed to really listen to what the music was telling me and not think about any received wisdom about how I should interpret the music. I had of course listened to many recordings of the Goldbergs over the years, but I was trying to approach the score with a clear head. In particular, I started to think a lot about what consituted pulse and rhythmic expression, about the shapes of the phrases and how they would be sung, or breathed.Lara: I think that's what I meant about the freedom of choice I experienced during my pregnancy. It was something about letting go of preconceptions, both others’ and my own, and exploring freely. Before that time, what had been your strongest influence with the Goldbergs? What was your relationship to the Gould recordings?Simone: I really loved the 1981 recording and that had been my first introduction to the Goldbergs. Hearing him play the aria was one of those moments like an epiphany that you always remember. I listened to it obsessively over the years, as well as all of his other recordings. Imade me feel quite intimidated, like everything that needed to be said had been said. But then in my late twenties I started to listen to other pianists, and I had another epiphany when I hear Jacques Loussier's recording of the Goldbergs. It opened up a completely different world to me.Lara: Well, I would absolutely have bet that you came first to the 1981 recording! Even though your own interpretation is completely different/unique, somehow if I had to guess... My first was the 1955 version, and it makes a tremendous difference which you hear first, doesn't it? It's like an imprinting.Simone: Yes - it's funny how that happens.Lara: Let's talk about all the ancestors. When we're very young, we're so apt to copy, and so warned not to, and then I think we go through this long process of establishing independence. But then I feel like all the ghosts kind of come back into the room, and we can allow them to speak to us and share their contributions. After all they've made us: the generations of musicians who have come before.Simone: That's beautifully put. My first teacher, Solomon Mikowsky, used to play many recordings for me of the works I was studying. We'd listen together and talk about the different musical choices that were made. he did this from when I was around ten. Then my second teacher, Maria Curcio, was quite different. She had an extremely specific way she wanted me to play and the way I learned from her was by becoming her. For a while I lost myself in her, but I learned so much. After that I studied with Peter Serkin, who was a very searching musician and wouldn't give me any answers, just looked and explored the music with me. So after all of that, it took a while for me to get the sounds of my teachers out of my head and feel strong enough to make my own decisions without any guilt.Lara: Yes. And whenever I work with young pianists, I'm aware of how difficult it is as a teacher to do anything but "show the way". It's a tremendous challenge to resist that easy communication!Simone: Personally I think that is the best way to teach.Lara: With the 13 WAYS project, I've been thinking so much about musical evolution. It was obvious to me that this music is all about the passing down from generation to generation. And because my husband is an evolutionary biologist, I asked him to help me parse that out. He explained that evolution, biologically speaking, is about the balance of inheritance and change, from generation to generation. And once I understood that, the musical evolution made so much sense to me!Simone: Yes, that makes sense. I think that classical musicians are way too obsessed with the past and tradition. It is important, and I feel grateful to all of the musicians who have influenced me. But I'm a musician because the music lives now and it relates to all of the other sounds I hear in the world around me.Lara: Right. And so, evolutionarily speaking, maybe it makes a whole lot of sense that we're crediting the process of becoming parents with enabling our own musical maturity to some extent! Aren't you glad that we're musicians in this day and age? I feel that we're so lucky. Despite all the practical challenges, there is openness to possibility that is wonderful.Simone: Yes - I think that gradually the classical music world is cottoning on to the idea that we don't live in a separate box.Lara: Well, that box was getting very very small and dusty! When you think about the future, what would you like to pass on? Do you have any ultimate goals or hopes as a musician in this tradition of ours?Simone: I hope that I am contributing to the idea that great music contains a world of varied interpretations.Lara: You are, for sure. I think that's the essential thing we can all strive for - to let our voices be true and unique to ourselves, and also to let them join the chorus of voices, so that the result is a tremendous variety of ideas and sounds.
The ON THE BENCH Questionnaire
(with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)
with Simone Dinnerstein
(with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)
with Simone Dinnerstein
What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?Take off my wedding rings.
What's the last thing you do before you go onstage?Yawn! I don't know why!
If your piano could speak, what secrets would it tell about you?She sometimes hugs me before bed!If you could travel in time to hear one piano concert, which would it be?Myra Hess - one of her National Gallery recitals in London during the Blitz.
If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?I would teach kindergarten at PS 321 in Brooklyn, where my husband teaches. He has the life!