World-renowned performer, Simone Dinnerstein, closes 2009-10 Artist Series

David Rubin

The Artist Series concluded April 30 with a recital by renowned pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Ever since winning the Astral Artists national audition – which led to her 2005 Carnegie Hall debut – Dinnerstein has won near-universal acclaim for her recordings, recitals and concerto performances. Her 2007 recording of J. S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” received extraordinary critical praise, as did a live recording of her 2008 recital debut at the Berlin Philharmonie. Currently in the midst of a whirlwind recital tour and hard at work recording an album of baroque concertos for Sony Classical, Dinnerstein was gracious enough to sit down with The Lawrentian for a few minutes to discuss her life as a performing musician.
Rubin: Tell me about your background and your studies.
Dinnerstein: I started taking lessons when I was seven. I guess I was inspired to start piano because I had been taking ballet and there was a pianist who played Chopin in class… and that got me interested. After a few years of [piano] lessons, my parents realized that I was pretty serious about it, so I started going to the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college [division]. I went there until I graduated [from] high school, and then I went to Juilliard. [There were] a few years in the middle [of studies at Juilliard] when I went to London to study with Maria Curcio. She was an incredible teacher. She had been a pupil of Artur Schnabel. I had started taking lessons with her in the summers when I was 15. And then I decided I needed to study with her full time. She had an approach to music that was really from a different era. The sound that she was going for and her aesthetic kind of came from the 1940s. It was very different, and I wanted to learn that sound. I would have lessons twice a week with her, and the rest of the time I spent practicing. It was very intense because she completely rebuilt my technique – she changed the way I hold my hands. She wanted me to bring in new music to every lesson. It was very different from how I learned before, where I would spend a whole year preparing a new recital program. [There] I was brining in a new sonata or concerto every week. When I came back to Juilliard, I studied with Peter Serkin, and that was also a very important time for me.
Rubin: How do you feel about competitions?
Dinnerstein: The larger international competitions… I was not cut out for them. It was not the right format for me to feel comfortable playing, to feel free, to be myself. I didn’t like being judged. Some people rise to that kind of occasion: They excel on being competitive. I feel worse when I feel there is a sense of competition. For me, [competitions are] really anti-musical. I would either be too nervous to play well, or would play exactly as I meant to play and that would upset the judges as well! Today, there is a standard: building a career through competitions. It’s not really known how you can do without. Of course, this didn’t used to be the case. Back in the time of Artur Schnabel, people weren’t doing competitions, they were just playing concerts. They were building careers based on their individuality.
Rubin: But the Astral Artists audition?
Dinnerstein: That was the one audition that I did do well in! It was very important. Actually, [Astral] is not a competition, it is an audition. Astral is a place that is trying to bridge the gap between being a student and being a professional. They do things like present you in recitals and concertos, make introductions to conductors. They talk about how to develop your career and what kind of strategies to use.
Rubin: I’d like to talk about your experience with J. S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” which you undertook at a significant time in your life. It is a piece that you have become particularly associated with…
Dinnerstein: It was two different things coming together. I had just won the Astral audition, and part of winning it was that I was going to be presented in a debut recital in Philadelphia. So I was thinking about programming [for that recital]. During that time, I also discovered that I was pregnant, which was something of a surprise. So I thought about those two things coming together, and I decided I wanted to learn a piece of music… that would be a significant piece to learn during my pregnancy. The “Goldberg Variations” had always been my favorite piece of keyboard music, but I never felt like I was ready to learn it. Now, having the affirmation of being with Astral, and feeling like I was really becoming a women and an adult, because I was about to become a mother… it just gave me the confidence to learn the piece and perform it.
Rubin: Do you feel a particular affinity with certain composers or certain types of music?
Dinnerstein: As a student, I spent a fair amount of time working on music that I wouldn’t have thought to play. [My teachers] were trying to make me well rounded and able to play many different types of things. After I graduated from Juilliard, I started thinking carefully about programming. I tend to like German composers: Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert. But I think I’m also interested in contemporary music – 20th century music. I’m interested in how those – German classics and contemporary music – relate to each other. I’m getting more interested in French music, which I haven’t done as much of before. But I’ve never been really drawn to Russian music.
Rubin: Tell me about your performance schedule and how you balance recitals and orchestra appearances.
Dinnerstein: In many ways, I find recitals – solo – more interesting to play than concertos – solo with orchestra. Simply because when you play a concerto, you’re walking into a situation where you’re playing with very little rehearsal. [A concerto is] something that you’ve thought about quite a bit, but the orchestra has only been able to think about [it] that week! It’s great when you work with a conductor you feel very sympathetic to, and an orchestra that’s very excited. But it doesn’t really compare, in a way, to the depth you can get to in a recital you’ve thought about and lived with, [in which there is] no compromise. The only compromise is with the piano you happen to be playing on that night. I’m pretty much doing two recital programs this year. And four different concertos and chamber music.
Rubin: Aside from the Goldberg piece, are there other things that you have always wanted to do?
Dinnerstein: I think that I’m going to keep on developing. My interests are going to change. I have certain [ideas]: I would love to do the five Beethoven concertos as a cycle. It would be interesting to do a lot of Chopin, which I studied a lot as a student but which I haven’t returned to as a professional. I’m getting ready for my second recording, which I’ll be doing for Sony, which [involves Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”] is completely rewritten for a contemporary music ensemble. It sounds very different, very unusual. The second movement of the “Spring” concerto is for piano, cello and theremin. It sounds unbelievable with theremin. I’m just thrilled.
Rubin: Tell me about the recording process. Do you prepare differently for a recording that you do for a concert performance?
Dinnerstein: It’s a completely different process. I’m just about to record in June, and I find that I prepare incredibly intensely. In great, great detail. When you do a recording, it’s like someone is holding a magnifying glass up to you. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to create your ideal concept of a piece.
Rubin: What advice would you offer to aspiring performers?
Dinnerstein: It’s just incredibly hard work. I had no idea what having this kind of a concert life entailed. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for very much else. I’m always practicing, or playing a concert or traveling. When I get home, I just want to be with my hus
band and son. I think it’s really important to realize that there are many different ways of being a musician. It’s not just being a concert artist. You can be playing lots of concerts that aren’t on an “international level,” and that’s totally satisfying and wonderful. There’s a lot of sacrifice… you have to really want to do it. The most important thing is that you feel like you can be expressive through music. I think that’s what I would say.
Rubin: One last question. As a “sign-in question,” Professor Julie McQuinn asks her music history students to contemplate which composer or performer – living or dead – they would like to have a beer with. So, which composer or performer would you like to have a beer with?
Dinnerstein: [If choosing a composer] I would probably want to meet [Robert] Schumann. I think he was… a fascinating person who seemed creative and expressive in many different ways. [If choosing a performer] I would want to have a beer with Glenn Gould, for the same reasons.