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An Evening with Simone Dinnerstein

As you ready yourself to listen to Simone Dinnerstein this evening, would it surprise you to learn that she will also be listening to you? That’s right. You are on her program (though this will need to suffice for a formal credit).

A seasoned performer, Ms. Dinnerstein has honed the sixth sense that reads the emotional energy of an audience while they embark together on a musical excursion: in this case, charting an unexpected path through whimsical Couperin, eccentric Satie, fervent Glass, and darkly romantic Schumann. It’s a useful ability when you strive to make every piece live in the moment, and, consequently, each performance of a program different than the last. But it’s especially invaluable when you approach works for the first time and propose new relationships between them.

Tonight’s program represents intriguing new terrain for Ms. Dinnerstein. Of the music being presented here, she has only performed Schumann’s Kreisleriana, and that was nearly two decades ago. She has composed each part of the program like a suite, with no pause between the compositions. The first grouping will be shorter than the second, purposefully creating asymmetry. “It’s hard to know how that will feel until I’ve done it a few times,” she says. “It’s different than playing it in your room.” In discussing her choices, Ms. Dinnerstein expresses the nervous excitement of not yet knowing if they will come together the way she thinks they will, though both her explanations and her track record suggest that the evening will exceed even her own daring expectations—and yours.

The pieces on this program are not typically heard together. Is there a connective thread that links them together?

When I chose to put these pieces side by side, I was thinking about music that returns to itself. I hesitate to use the word repetitive. Rather it seems like the composers are wrestling with something, the way you might keep turning over an idea in your head. It’s psychological. Every single piece seems to show how fleeting our emotions are, though we come back to them. The music describes our internal world.

With the first Couperin piece, I can’t tell if it’s uplifting or incredibly sad. The same with the Satie. Everything in the program has a quality where you can’t be certain if it’s saying one thing or another. And when a phrase is repeated, it seems to mean something else. I like the ambiguity. I don’t want to know what it means. In fact, I don’t even want to decide how I’m going to play it in advance. It changes every time.

The music travels on these paths largely through its piano figuration. Is this program also a study of motion?

I hadn’t thought of it, but that’s a good point. I’m definitely using rhythm and pulse in different ways. Because the forms of the pieces are circular, they don’t necessarily feel like they’re on a trajectory. It’s more like a rhythm of life. The final movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana is an amazing example of that. The way he’s written it, the two hands become completely out of sync with each other—as if the left hand has entirely lost the beat. To me, it represents someone becoming undone. I love how the concert ends with this utter disintegration of rhythm.

Couperin, a contemporary of J.S. Bach, was a composer at the court of Louis XIV and wrote a well-known treatise that sheds light on Baroque keyboard fingerings and ornamentation. What was your point of entry for his music?

I’ve never played any Couperin before, though I’ve certainly listened to him over the years. I’m not thinking too much about performance practice. I’ve always found ornamentation a bit frilly. I tend to like things more bare, so I can hear the bones of the piece. The whole touch and the color I’m going for are quite different than Bach.

The titles of both Couperin pieces on the program are quite fantastical: Les Barricades Mystérieuses (The Mysterious Barricades) and Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Maillotins (The Tic-Toc-Choc and the Maillotins), who were a family of spectacular rope dancers. How literally should we interpret them?

With Les Barricades, there’s speculation about whether or not it refers to virginity or chastity. I don’t know what the title means, though there is something mysterious about it. I’m actually kind of obsessed with the piece. I can’t stop thinking about it and wanting to play it. To me, it’s a kind of totem. It reminds me of the Aria in Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the sense that you feel like you could keep ending it and starting it over again.

Le Tic-Toc-Choc is an amazing piece to play and watch. It sounds like a machine, like a mechanical clock. It could be meant purely for fun, but it’s more than entertaining. It’s philosophical, too, like the ticking of time. It has a quality that minimalist music can achieve, where you’re in a kind of groove that is moving you.

Le Tic-Toc-Choc is a pièce croisée, meaning that the performer’s hands were supposed to be playing two different keyboard manuals of the harpsichord in the same range. How do you play it on piano—by dropping the left hand down an octave?

No, I’m playing them in the same octave. The hands completely cross over each other, which is very complicated. It’s almost like playing marimba. You have to strike the hammers with your two hands in rapid succession on the same note. So your fingers are being used like mallets and get can get stuck into each other. It’s gnarly. You really have to choreograph how you play it. And you need to have a piano that is extremely responsive and can repeat very quickly.

I’ve been going back and forth about whether or not I should take the repeats in Le Tic-Toc-Choc. It’s a rondo form and it’s unclear if you should repeat the opening material when you go return to it. I’m definitely thinking about how it relates to the pieces that surround it on the program. I’m playing it right after Philip Glass’s Mad Rush, where everything is repeated. That piece has an ebb and flow that is very similar to the Couperin. There’s a feeling of slight syncopation, where you start to hear different parts of the beat. You can be very aware of one voice that’s syncopating in a certain kind of a way. And then suddenly you’re not hearing that voice anymore. You’re hearing another voice and he makes you feel the beat as being displaced in a different way. The pulse feels like it’s shifting.

What are the origins of Mad Rush?

Glass wrote it to play on the organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for the Dalai Lama’s first public address in North America back in 1979. Apparently, they didn’t know exactly when the Dalai Lama was going to arrive. They didn’t want the people waiting to think there was a delay, so they asked him to write a piece of indefinite length. Even though the length of this version is fixed, it’s not hard to imagine that it could keep on going.

I hear parts of it as playing with acoustics, though I don’t know if that’s related to the spatial environment of the cathedral or even if it’s what he intended. What I’ve been finding with Glass’s music is that it’s really great not to have a plan and to just listen in the moment because the space where you perform really changes the sound. Of course, that’s true of anything, but his music is very open, like Bach in a way. There’s an abstraction they have in common.

They also share an element of wonder. Does Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 have this in common with Le Tic-Toc-Choc and Mad Rush?

Satie published three Gymnopédie and three Gnossienne together, though he eventually wrote more Gnossienne, a fantastical term that he came up with. The markings in the score are bizarre: “Plan carefully”; “Provide yourself with clear sightedness”; “Alone for a moment”; “So as to get a hollow”; “Quite lost”; “Carry this further”; “Open your mind”. These are written right over the notes. I’m not able to make heads or tails of it. The commentary is dada-esque.

No one would know about the markings unless they’re playing it. Perhaps Satie didn’t particularly care about how it affected the musicians because what he wrote seems very personal to me, like a journal. I interpret the comments as having to do with his own feelings at those moments, which is similar to some of the markings in Schumann’s music. There’s something poetic about both of them.

Another eccentricity is that Satie wrote the piece without bar lines that would give the rhythm formal units of measure. Why wouldn’t he include them?

It’s ahead of its time, that’s for sure. So many composers now just don’t bother with a meter. And the pulse is clear in this case. It makes the music appear more continuous, almost like a run on sentence, in spite of how short it is in length. It doesn’t need to be long in order for it to have lasting power. Although Satie and Schumann are obviously very different, I do think that they were using the music here as expressions of their internal states a the time, of their dream worlds.

What would Schumann have been dreaming about?

He wrote the Arabesque at a moment when he thought he would never marry Clara, the love of his life. 
With Kreisleriana, he composed it in just four days, which is incredible. And he wrote it for Clara, though he formally dedicated it to Chopin. What I really love is that he said she would find herself in the music, which is so beautiful, so passionate.

The Arabesque has some quick changes in mood and the most breathtaking coda at the end that completely takes it someplace else, written in Schumann’s music language but sounding absolutely contemporary. In comparison, Kreisleriana changes on a dime. Suddenly, you’ll be in a completely different headspace. I think that’s as much about Schumann himself as about his love for Clara.

Is there a tidal push and pull even in the way that movements are put together?

Yes, they really move from one to the other and are very specifically written to go in order. One leads to the other in interesting ways. The piece has many open-ended questions. For instance, with the third movement, you think you’ve been given finality and closure because it ends so ferociously. And then the fourth movement starts with such questioning and uncertainty. It shows that resolution was an illusion or else the music couldn’t go into the next movement and the way it does. The ground has shifted underneath you and you’re lost all over again.

We know where Schumann was in his life when he composed these works. Are you in a particular place in your own life that has inspired you to explore the pieces in this program?

My son is about to go to college, and I know that I’m about to start a different phase of my life where I don’t have my child with me anymore. It makes me think back to when he was born, watching him grow up, and how the world shifts. It makes me think about circles. If I could say what I wanted the audience to take away from this program, it would be something about feelings of uncertainty, but it’s difficult to put into words. That’s why music is ineffable.

Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.