Simone Dinnerstein hears voices. To be more specific, she hears a “powerful narrative, a vocal element” in the instrumental music of Bach and Schubert. Her new album, Something Almost Being Said (the title comes from Philip Larkin’s poem “The Trees”), features Bach’s First and Second Partitas and Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Op. 90—and in her performances the melodic lines do indeed sing. Dinnerstein spoke with Ariama editor Craig Zeichner about Bach, future plans, balancing career and family, and why she’s been listening to Led Zeppelin lately.
“Both Bach and Schubert were composers who were very comfortable setting texts to music,” says Dinnerstein. “Most of their music was vocal, and Bach’s music has the added dimension of being spiritual in a sense, even the music that’s considered secular. I think everything he wrote said something that was meaningful in a spiritual sense for him.”
Dinnerstein remembers, “An example of that relationship between ‘unspoken’ music and music set to texts was demonstrated to me when I was recording the Bach concertos. I was working with the Staatskapelle Berlin on the recording and their concertmaster, Stephan Mai, who is very schooled in early music, asked me if I was aware of the fact that Bach had also used the D minor concerto in a cantata? [Cantata, BWV 146] It was extremely interesting, because I’ve always thought in a certain way about what the slow movement of the concerto was saying emotionally. In the cantata, Bach had the organ play what the piano plays, and on top of that he added a chorale and the text pretty much said what I thought the music was saying without my knowing the text.” In fact, Dinnerstein is always seeking that revelatory moment when the meaning behind the music is uncovered.
Bach has been something of a career touchstone for her. The story of how she raised the funds herself, while pregnant, to make her breakthrough recording of the Goldberg Variations was even documented on CBS Sunday Morning. She says, “The story fits into our culture and the idea of the American dream; I think that’s why it speaks to people so much. This is a country where supposedly you can create your own life and your own future. Maybe this story wouldn’t have been as affective if I lived in Germany. But I think it fits really well into being an American, especially being an American in a time when, at least in the recording world, things are a little uncertain and changing fast.”
Bach also figures in Dinnerstein’s recording plans this summer, with an album of his Two-Part Inventions. “Working on them has been a really exciting experience. It feels like everything Bach had to say is concentrated in these works,” she says. “There’s an interesting quote at the beginning of the volume where he tells why he wrote them. One of the main things he wrote was that it was to teach how to play cantabile. That connects very much to the way I feel about his music, about it being singing music on the piano.”
Other summertime plans include a recording with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt and a Verbier Festival performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s Concerto for Violin and Piano with violinist Daniel Hope. She has also commissioned works. “Philip Lasser is writing a piano concerto for me and it’s completely stunning,” she says, “I’m really excited because I’ve been hearing it as he’s been going along and I think it’s going to be a major work. Nico Muhly is also writing a short solo piece for me which was commissioned through the Terezin Foundation.”
When Dinnerstein is done with work and turns on the stereo, though, “I don’t listen to that much piano music because by the end of the day I’ve kind of had enough of the piano. But I have been listening to a lot more non-classical music. I’ve been listening to Nick Drake, the Avett Brothers, Elliott Smith, and my son has been introducing me to a lot of Led Zeppelin. It’s kind of exciting for me because it takes me out of my element and I feel like I learn a lot by listening to other kinds of music.”
Dinnerstein seems to be everywhere at once with recitals, recordings and the Neighborhood Classics series (a series she founded and hosts that builds relationships between neighborhoods and musicians by sponsoring one-hour, family-friendly performances to raise funds to benefit public school students). And that means balancing family and career is an issue. “I don’t think I could do any of these things if it wasn’t for my husband, who is very supportive and a very present father. My parents also live very close by, so I have a real support system,” she says.
She adds, “I don’t play a crazy number of concerts and I play as much as I feel I’m able to. I like to be at home and like having a normal life with my family, so I try to make sure that I have enough time at home. But I think the biggest challenge is that when I’m at home I’m actually present and not distracted with my work. Being a musician can eat up your whole mind, so I need to leave space for the rest of who I am.”