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Pianist Simone Dinnerstein Says Dare to be Yourself

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Long before I met with Simone Dinnerstein for the first time, I was already admiring her. In 2000, I heard her play at Juilliard’s Schumann Concerto Competition, and despite the fact that Jeremy Denk, her competitor at the time, was chosen to play the concerto with the orchestra, I felt very strongly about her performance as well, and developed an interest in the young pianist.

And so it came as no surprise for me when years later I learned about her huge recording success which followed a performance of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" in March 2005 and her debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in November of the same year. I had the chance to talk to Simone at Sweet Melissa, a small Brooklyn restaurant near her son’s elementary school.

“My career was not calculated but kind of happened," she told me. "The 'Goldberg' was a big project. I had to raise the money for the recording with the help of friends, find a producer, and then a recording studio. The motivation came from performing the 'Goldberg' for a number of years. I felt I had something different to say and wanted to document it, not knowing at the time where all this was going to lead me.”

She continues: “I didn’t know whether any label would be interested in it. Then Adam Abeshouse edited the aria and the first five variations, and passed it around to a few people in the music world. Suddenly people wanted to talk to me. Where I had been having trouble to get my foot in the door before, now everybody wanted to hear me live.”

A music lover from Israel she had never met before was willing to sponsor the first concert, and Dinnerstein made the acquaintance of Tanja Dorn of IMG Artists who would become her agent. Her career was somehow taking a different turn.

Still, she continues to be very grounded. When asked how she dealt with the impact of being a wife and mother, and simultaneously having to meet the demands of a career suddenly taking off, she told me, “People always ask me about my son, which doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue for my male colleagues, even though there are many fathers consciously holding back their careers to devote more time to their children as well. This situation still seems to create more of a conflict for women." And she added, “Of course being with my family is very important to me. My manager tries to accommodate me in terms of my time away from home. I’m never away for more than two weeks. I also try to divide up my time into very defined segments, like private time spent with my husband and son, and time for practice and concerts. The hardest part is to be present and focused whereever you are at any one time. It is easy to get distracted, and although we women are supposed to be good at multitasking, the ongoing challenge is to find the right balance”.

Dinnerstein says she tried different methods to help her through the day-to-day challenges, like yoga and meditation, but she concedes that “it all comes down to dealing with the psychological pressures at hand and the need to delegate in an effective way.”

She adds that it helped her very much that her husband is a teacher at her son’s school, and so at least she didn’t have to worry about how her son will get to school when she travels. “But at the same time, this means disengaging myself which isn’t always easily done. It’s all a give and take.”

Her well-roundedness and sense of realism gives Simone Dinnerstein a very distinct, down-to-earth appeal. And that’s exactly how she likes to be perceived. Her ‘no-fuzz’ approach even extends to her on-stage persona. “I like to dress casually when performing," she admits. “I find it a bit antiquated to wear a big gown.”

At her debut at Avery Fisher Hall on July 7 of this year, she dressed in black pants and a sleeveless purple blouse. Yet, her modest dress code and friendly demeanor did not take away from the intensity of her performance in which she made ample use of musical gestures without ever seeming over-the-top dramatic.

“My London-based teacher, distinguished Schnabel-pupil Maria Curcio, who I worked with for a short time, was very physical, and had included some Alexander Technique into her teaching,” Dinnerstein explains. “I am very relaxed at the piano, and have a good sense of my body when playing.”

“There has to be a complete fusion between technique and music,” she says. “In the modern-day conservatory the focus is on technique as facility. Some people thrive on that; it never was my forte. For me, expression of the music has to be the main drive behind the technical finesse of its execution."

Perhaps that’s what The Guardian recognized when calling her a true musician, rather than a mere pianist. Asked if she has any regrets about the way her career evolved, she answered, “I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed a bit longer with Maria Curcio, or had gone there earlier, but things happen for a reason. I am in many ways a slow developer. It takes me a long time to internalize a process. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I am doing now ten years ago. I’ve been growing into myself.”

And that’s definitely what comes across when one hears her perform. Talking about her most important experiences at Juilliard, she mentions having loved studying with Peter Serkin, and performing a lot of chamber music with the New Juilliard Ensemble and Focus, which also lead her to a beautiful partnership with cellist Zuill Bailey; their recording of Beethoven’s Complete Works was released by Telarc in August 2009.

What does she count among her most memorable performances? "When people are appreciative and not jaded," she says. “It is surprising where you may experience that. I have just came back from the Vienna Konzerthaus where I expected the audience to be much stiffer. To my surprise, they were really very involved with the music, in a very personal way. During my playing there was a focused silence, and then an enthusiastic response.”

And there was the recent concert at a women’s prison in Baltimore. Dinnerstein talks about how appreciative the audience was, and how, in turn, their attentiveness made the concert all the more meaningful for her. “It goes both ways," she says.

When she's not touring, one might find Simone Dinnerstein performing with her musician friends at her neighborhhod school, P.S. 321 in Brooklyn. She wants to address the problem of dwindling audiences, especially younger audiences, and also to bring the community together. Currently, she is working on expanding the concept to other city schools. “I enjoy when performers are on the same level as the audience, making the performance more natural," she says. “There are a lot of people in my neighborhood that never make it to a concert because of the lack of babysitters, the long commute, whatever the problem may be. Here they can bring their kids along and they in turn grow up with classical music.” And she concludes, “Music should be integrated into the lifestyle of one's community.”

One would have to agree with her.

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About Ilona Oltuski

  • xochopin

    this is fascinating!