Her vibrant, emotionally-charged 2007 recording of Bach's The Goldberg Variations made Simone Dinnerstein an instant success in the classical music world.
Dinnerstein, who raised the money herself to pay for the recording sessions, subsequently leasing the tapes to Telarc Records, was 34 at the time, and had been playing piano since the age of 7. A Juilliard graduate, she had also studied in London under Maria Curcio.
So her success, while immediate, was not of the "overnight" variety.
Yet Dinnerstein's Goldberg Variations was, out of the gate, a sensation. It entered the Billboard Classical chart in the No. 1 spot, and on the Top 200 (the highly competitive "popular albums") chart, it rose to No. 7, where it outsold albums by Bruce Springsteen and the White Stripes.
Although some purists have carped that her interpretations of Bach might be a tad too colorful and contemporary, the fans - those that attend her concerts and buy her CDs - can't get enough. Bach: A Strange Beauty, Dinnerstein's just-released Sony debut, also entered the classical chart at the top.
Said the Washington Post: "Dinnerstein's readings may be said to plumb these works' genuine depths . . . poised, elegant, wonderfully played."
Dinnerstein makes her local debut, with a Bach-heavy program, in a Savannah Music Festival performance April 6 at the Telfair Academy.
We spoke with her a few days ago from the home she shares in Brooklyn with her husband and young son.
On interpreting Bach
"When you learn a piece of music, you're working from a musical score which is just notes on a page. There are a million ways to interpret that. And anybody who's playing is interpreting what they see. When I'm working on a piece of music, I'm trying to be looking deeply into that music, and trying to understand its structure, how I think it's phrased, and what I think is meaningful in there. What's interesting about the music. And to bring that out. I'm thinking about that much more than I'm thinking about adhering to a certain tradition of playing that piece of music.
"I mean, I'm trying not to work off of received wisdom. I'm trying to work off of a really fresh look at the score. Because when I listen to great performances that really move me and interest me, I find them fascinating and interesting because that person has had their own response to the music, in a very personal way. I don't think they're thinking about how people are going to like it or not - they're just thinking about being honest about the music, in their own way."
On self-financing her CD
"I wanted to record it because I felt like I had gotten it to a point where I needed to document what I was doing. I didn't really have a clear plan as to what I was going to do with it after it was done. I mean, I thought it would be a good representation of my playing, but I certainly didn't anticipate what was going to happen."
On the Goldberg Variations
"It's an extremely long piece of music; it's probably the longest continuous piece of music for keyboard. And it's extremely complex. It developed a kind of reputation - it wasn't performed for many years, and then the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, in the 1930s, started to perform it. She recorded it, and suddenly people were really interested in it. And in 1955 Glenn Gould recorded it, and nobody had ever heard anybody play Bach the way he played Bach. I think Glenn Gould's recording of The Goldberg Variations changed how people thought about Bach on the piano. It was epic, like Laurence Olivier's definitive Hamlet.
"So to make it your own, to see something fresh in the music, is a huge challenge. That's why it's been so unusual that this particular recording of mine would have been the thing that changed my career."
On the zenith for a pianist
"I guess you want to be able to spend your life performing the music that you love in the best possible circumstances. That's my goal. That means being able to perform on really beautiful pianos, in great concert halls. And to work with great conductors and orchestras. That's the nicest possible outcome. And there are many ways for that to happen."
On ‘seeing' music
"I think color is definitely a part of it, and I think structure is very important. The architecture of a piece of music. I guess I try to think about it from the smallest details, which are how you articulate a note, how you move from one note to another - that's really important. How you attack and release, it's as simple as that. Of course, color totally comes into that, and touch, and different kinds of sounds. And then how the phrases link to each other. That goes all the way up to how the entire piece of music hangs together.
"But it's all thought of in a musical way. In a musical language, which is very hard to describe because I'm not thinking about it with imagery or words. It's all thought about in its own language.
"There is a part of it that's really intellectual, and very analytical. But to explain that in words - to explain why the sudden appearance of a major 7th chord in a harmonic progression would make such a big difference - I guess you could explain those as colors or feelings."
Savannah Music Festival
Simone Dinnerstein, piano
When & where: At 6:15 p.m. April 6, Telfair Academy
Tickets: $55 at savannahmusicfestival.org