“I’ve talked to music scholars, jazz musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and even rabbis—a wide range of people. And Bach’s music speaks to them. It speaks to the very deep and mysterious part of everyone.” —Simone Dinnerstein
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein is a gracious and thoughtful interview subject, the kind of person with whom you look forward to speaking because of the potential for meaningful dialogue and her utter lack of pretension. When I called her to talk about Bach from the Piano, the three-concert series she curated for Miller Theatre this winter, Dinnerstein was congenial, but prefaced our conversation with something of a warning. “I’m not a historian,” she said bluntly. “And I didn’t put these programs together based on any historical research or theories.”
I wasn’t surprised. When I’d talked to Dinnerstein about the single program she performed at Miller a year ago, an imaginative mix of works by François Couperin, Robert Schumann, Erik Satie, and Philip Glass, she’d demurred, for example, on the particulars of Couperin’s Baroque-harpsichord treatise and Schumann’s notable Romantic angst, preferring to talk instead about Glass, a contemporary composer who she knows personally. (Dinnerstein had recently toured his Piano Concerto No. 3, written for her as a co-commission from twelve different orchestras, giving its New York premiere here at Miller Theatre.)
This year, when I asked her what we might learn about the Baroque form of the sonata through the repertoire on the first Bach concert she programed for the series, she met my question with a flat reply and a hearty chuckle. “Well, you might find something to say something about that,” she said, “but it’s not what I was thinking about.”
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)—quite possibly the greatest composer in the Western art music tradition, the most renowned keyboard player of his day, and, by all accounts, an extraordinary improviser—originated some 300 years in the past. It is nearly impossible to speak about him without engaging deeply in music history—or so my inner musicologist would once have argued.
Starting with the work of his biographer Julius August Philipp Spitta (1841–1894), if not earlier with the revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, much of the discipline of musicology developed in order to engage with Bach as a historical subject: studying manuscript sources to produce critical editions of his music, and unearthing documents that contribute to our understanding of his biography. Throughout the 20th Century, scholar-musicians have made it their life’s work to reconstruct his music through historically informed performance on period instruments, an approach initially applied to works of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, then gradually extended to the Classical and Romantic eras. A fervor for charismatic and highly skilled performers such as Jordi Savall, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Sir Roger Norrington in the 1980s and ‘90s demonstrated that the quest for authenticity was not limited to wonky academic exercises, but could be trendy, driving popular demand among classical music enthusiasts.
With this wealth of accumulated knowledge on Bach—and, frankly, the zealotry that sometimes accompanies it—one might be tempted to judge unfavorably any musician who neglects even a kernel of information, let alone someone with an unorthodox approach. (Case in point: I remember a performance practice course I took at the Eastman School of Music in the 1990s, during which our instructor played the venerated 1955 Glenn Gould recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The example was so contrary to our way of thinking that the room spontaneously burst into laughter, deeming it absurd.)
“I’ve definitely been accused of anti-intellectualism,” says Dinnerstein. “Maybe it’s true. I don’t know. But that’s not why I’m playing. I’m not playing the piano to make a point; I’m playing it to make music.
“For instance,” she continues, “I think that Jordi Savall is an extraordinary musician, and I love listening to everything that he does. But it’s speaking to me in an aesthetic and emotional way. I’m not thinking about whether or not his ornamentation is correct. Maybe someone would say that it sounds beautiful because he’s playing it the way it would have been played, but that’s not how I hear it.
"The tension for me is between the music being an art form living in the present and trying to recreate something that comes from the past." —Simone Dinnerstein
“I also love listening to Myra Hess,” she adds, referring to the British pianist, whose Bach interpretations and transcriptions were esteemed during the first half of the 20th Century. “And I don’t think that there was anything historically correct about how she was playing.”
Could it be that Dinnerstein’s rise over the past decade is evidence that the pendulum has begun to swing the other way, returning Bach to those individual musicians confident in their aesthetic liberty, and with a less historically specific vision of what his music should be?
Dinnerstein first made her mark with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the imposing repertoire for her debut recording and one that seemed to come out of nowhere. Yes, she was a Juilliard graduate with a solid resume, but, by all accounts, her career had stalled. When she learned she was pregnant in 2001, she set out to master the Goldbergs before the baby arrived, a monumental task. She eventually raised the money to produce her own recording, a risky move that paid off, landing her a Weill Recital Hall debut, a manager, and a label. In 2007, that recording topped the Billboard Classical Chart in its first week of sales.
As Anne Midgette wrote for The New York Times, “It is a distinctive approach to the work: colorful and idiosyncratic, a contemporary pianist’s rather than a harpsichordist’s account. It starts with a long, thoughtful, hesitant Aria that seems to be struggling to lift itself uncertainly out of silence.”
Dinnerstein’s approach is also full of intention, grounded in her deep reading of musical structures and the desire to communicate with incredible clarity, no matter the composer or the stylistic period. “I would probably say the same things to you if we were talking about Schumann or Copland,” she says. “The tension for me is between the music being an art form living in the present and trying to recreate something that comes from the past. That’s still a big argument in music today, much more than it was in the 1950s or ‘60s. Because if you listen to different pianists playing Bach from that period of time, there was a very wide range of approaches, whereas the people playing today tend to have a much more uniform approach.”
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The same kind of devotion to making music that lives in the present guides Dinnerstein’s new venture: Baroklyn, an eleven-member string ensemble that she leads from the piano. The group debuted at Miller Theatre in 2017. Joined on Bach from the Piano this year by a handful of select principal musicians on violin, cello, flute, oboe, and voice, Baroklyn offers the pianist an alternative to performing Bach as a solitary pursuit.
“When I’m playing his music by myself,” explains Dinnerstein, “I hear the sounds of different instruments. I’m juggling many voices and many personalities. What really appeals to me about leading an ensemble is hearing those sounds being played by different instruments in reality.”
Dinnerstein built the series with Miller Theatre’s Executive Director Melissa Smey around the group’s instrumentation, presenting a program of Bach Sonatas (January 30), Bach Concertos (February 13), and the Bach Collection (March 12), which brings together a handful of his most celebrated works.
A prolific composer, Bach served as the Cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (1723-50), contributing over 200 cantatas to mark the Lutheran liturgical calendar. Although some of the works featured in Dinnerstein’s performances with Baroklyn belong to that sacred context, including one exceptionally poignant cantata, Ich habe genug, featured on the Bach Collection, the majority were played by members of the Collegium Musicum, an instrumental ensemble whose directorship Bach assumed from 1729-39, despite an abundance of other responsibilities.
Drawing on professional musicians and highly accomplished university students, the Collegium Musicum gave ‘ordinaire’ concerts weekly, and ‘extraordinaire’ concerts for special occasions in the lively atmosphere of Zimmerman’s coffeehouse (inspiring Bach to write, among other things, a ‘coffee cantata’). Not only did they perform music by Bach, but by other renowned composers of the day, including Georg Friedrich Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann. According to Bach’s son, composer C.P.E. Bach, it was “seldom that a musical master passed through without getting to know my father and playing for him.” The group unquestionably fueled Leipzig’s vibrant cultural scene, and gave Bach an outlet for his extraordinary talents beyond the confines of the church.
These instrumental masterworks dominate the first two concerts, Bach Sonatas and Bach Concertos. The other pieces belong to a tradition of adaptations and commentary on Bach with their own historic lineage. The composer himself was known for rewriting and arranging his works for different instrumentation; similarly, Dinnerstein will play a popular arrangement of the chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by pianist Myra Hess (1890-1965) on the Bach Collection. Bach routinely performed chorale preludes, arrangements, and improvisations on hymns of the day; Dinnerstein brings an arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Prelude on Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) to the Bach Collection. In addition, she commissioned Philip Lasser, with whom she has worked on several projects, to arrange the chorale prelude Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, BWV 721 for piano and strings. This new work premieres on Bach Concertos.
“So often I see concerts put together in the spirit of, ‘Let’s hear all six Brandenburg concertos together now,’” says Dinnerstein. “There’s a place for that, but we don’t have to present music in a way that’s encyclopedic. I’ve always been interested in programs where I can hear a variety of work for different instruments with different timbres, that have different kinds of intentions and meanings to them.”
The programs Dinnerstein has curated for Bach from the Piano are manifestations of that ideal, selecting varied riches that shine brightly in their juxtaposition. Yet her choices were also driven by what she loves; she tells me, as we discuss each piece in turn, that it, too, is a favorite. Her connection to the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060 is perhaps the most personal one of all. She was so taken with its second movement when she heard it in the Pier Paolo Pasolini film The Gospel According to St. Matthew that she felt compelled to track it down. Performed by two violins, the piece would accompany her down the aisle on her wedding day.
“I’ve made pilgrimages to the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig,” she says. “I’ve talked to music scholars, jazz musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and even rabbis—a wide range of people. And Bach’s music speaks to them. It speaks to the very deep and mysterious part of everyone. I think that is why we continue to turn to his music, and it’s still so relevant today. Obviously, you can find a million details in it that are endlessly interesting as a musician, or a theorist. But you don’t need to know any of that in order to have the music speak to you in a powerful way.”
Bach Collection, the third and final program of Bach from the Piano, brings together some of Bach’s most popular works: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged by Dame Myra Hess; Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060; the chorale prelude Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639, arranged by Ferruccio Busoni; and the cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82.
The previous programs, Bach Sonatas and Bach Concertos, highlighted repertoire from Bach’s tenure as the director of Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum. Dinnerstein has included one of the virtuosic works known to have been performed by that trailblazing ensemble on tonight’s concert as well: Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor. However, the three remaining pieces count among Bach’s sacred repertoire, from the period of his appointment as court organist and Konzertmeister in Weimar (1708-1717) and his final post as the Cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.“Personally, I think that all of Bach’s music is sacred,” Dinnerstein reminds us. “I doubt that he would have made the distinction.”
Whereas flute was the featured wind instrument in Bach Concertos, oboe assumes importance in the Bach Collection via its prominence in both the concerto and the cantata. “It’s like a voice without words,” Dinnerstein explains. “I thought it could be very interesting to have a concert with those two pieces on the same program. The quality of the second movement of the concerto, which contains some of his most beautiful writing for the instrument, is such that it could have come from one of the cantatas.”
Whereas flute was the featured wind instrument in Bach Concertos, oboe assumes importance in the Bach Collection . . .“It’s like a voice without words,” Dinnerstein explains.
Dinnerstein will perform these four works in concert with musicians of whom she thinks as her colleagues and peers. Oboist Alecia Lawyer came to Dinnerstein’s attention through flutist Christina Jennings, who performed on Bach Concertos; Lawyer is the founder, director, and principal oboist of ROCO, a chamber orchestra based in Houston. Canadian mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn was recommended to Dinnerstein by Philip Lasser, whose arrangement of the chorale prelude Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, BWV 721 for piano and strings premiered on Bach Concertos; Evanyshyn, a Juilliard graduate, recently joined the Staatsoper Hamburg’s International Opera Studio.
Violinist Rebecca Fischer, concertmaster of Baroklyn, is a good friend with whom Dinnerstein has worked for years; they met as fellows at Tanglewood in 1997. “I heard her play a Mozart string quintet,” says Dinnerstein, “and I thought she was just the best, the most beautiful musician.”
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
A favorite for weddings and at Christmastime, this beloved arrangement is one of many recreations of Baroque repertoire by English pianist Dame Myra Hess; she received her honorific title for organizing nearly 2,000 lunchtime concerts during the Blitz of London during World War II. “She’s one of my favorite pianists,” says Dinnerstein. “Her sound was so incredibly personal.”
Retitled by Hess, Jesu is based on two chorale movements from Bach’s cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, first composed for Advent in December 1716 while he was at Weimar. The melody, with its iconic triplets, belongs to the Lutheran evening hymn “Werde munter, mein Gemüte” (c. 1641) by German violinist and composer Johann Schop. Its text was written by German Protestant minister and musician Martin Janus.
Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060
Written in the hand of Bach’s student and son-in-law J. C. Altnikol for its performance by the Collegium Musicum, only a single manuscript source survives for this piece—and it is scored for two harpsichords rather than for violin and oboe. Bach scholars have known for more than a century that his keyboard concertos, which helped liberate that instrument from its accompaniment role and recast it as a worthy soloist, were re-compositions of earlier concertos for violin and oboe. The attempts to reconstruct those missing works began in the 1920s and continues to this day. The version Dinnerstein will perform is by contemporary German conductor and musicologist Wilfried Fischer.
“I’ve loved this concerto for such a long time,” Dinnerstein says of the piece that she included in her wedding ceremony. “The Pasolini film The Gospel According to St. Matthew uses that beautiful, slow second movement, which is where I first heard it. I’ve played the version for two keyboards; but oboe and violin can sustain notes in a way that is impossible on keyboard instruments.”
Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639
Bach’s earliest surviving works are chorale preludes, arrangements of existing chorales for organ, that date from when he was a mere 15 years old. He continued to write them as a young man during his first professional posts as organist at Weimar, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Weimar again, the period from which this composition dates. It appears in an autograph manuscript that collects 45 of Bach’s chorale preludes known as the Orgelbüchlein (1708-1717).
“Such was the centrality of the chorale in Protestant Germany that a substantial part of the training and activities of the organist and the composer traditionally revolved around it,” writes musicologist Richard Jones. “The skills required were not just in harmonizing chorales, but in improvising or composing more elaborate music, such as chorale preludes, on their basis.”
Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ was based on a hymn by Johann Agricola first published in 1529, one popular enough to appear in settings by Bach’s contemporaries Johann Pachelbel and Dieterich Buxtehude. Composer Ferruccio Busoni’s later piano transcription appeared as part of his massive thirty-year project known as the Bach-Busoni Editions, the first of which was published in 1894.
“I heard this chorale prelude in another film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris,” says Dinnerstein. “I was just so taken with it that I went looking for it. And that’s when I found Busoni’s version. It’s one of my favorite chorale preludes.”
Cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82
A profoundly fitting work with which to close the concert and this series, Ich habe genug premiered at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig on February 2, 1727, as we know from its surviving autograph manuscript. The source materials also reveal that the cantata was performed on at least three more occasions. What kept Bach returning to it time and time again?
The anonymous text is based on the biblical story of Simeon in the book of Luke, the “righteous and devout” man of Jerusalem who can contentedly embrace his own death once he meets the infant Jesus in the temple. The dominant cultural view in Bach’s day held that death was a passage to be embraced, a sweet and peaceful sleep. Yet Bach’s meditation on this subject is one of internal conflict beyond what words can convey.
“There is a sense of acceptance, but there are also these moments of real emotional struggle,” says Dinnerstein. “I think that’s what makes it so interesting—the tension between the incredible sadness about leaving this world and also a sense of peace and joy in going to the next world. You don’t need to know the meaning of the text; the music has a particular poignancy that is clear. It is a piece that I think resonates with many people and I return to it myself all the time.”
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.
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