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Bach Concertos

“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.”

* * * *

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 D minor, BWV 1060R 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 Concertos presents four of Bach’s works for orchestra: Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, BWV 721, arranged by Philip Lasser; Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067; Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052; and Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050.

Dinnerstein selected the pieces with an eye for creating a varied sound palette and the potential for interplay between them. 

These compositions will fully employ Baroklyn’s complement of strings. Dinnerstein selected the pieces with an eye for creating a varied sound palette and the potential for interplay between them. “What I’m thinking about in this particular program is the many textures we’ve brought together,” she explains. “And the dramatic emotional arc created by this group of works.”

That variety stems naturally from sampling the Baroque concerto as a form, which at that time included several types of works for both voices and instruments in sacred and secular contexts. Musicologist Claude Palisca suggests that we might think of the genre in the broadest terms as one where “a harmonious cooperation is achieved among diverse performers.” That idea would come to be connected with a soloist or soloists placed in opposition to an ensemble, later codified as an element of the classical style.

The program opens with Erbarm dich mein, originally a chorale prelude for organ in which a collection of fluid voices are taken up by the hands of a single player; Lasser’s arrangement promises to redistribute them across Dinnerstein’s piano and its supporting family of strings. Orchestral Suite No. 2 features the flute, allowing it to shine in solo passages often doubled by the first violin, with the keyboard serving as dutiful accompanist. The second half of the program is ablaze with keyboard fireworks: Keyboard Concerto No. 1 liberates the instrument in a work that is as deep as it is fiery, and Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 places it in a trio of breezy soloists.

As we saw in Bach Sonatas, the master composer is exploring the capabilities of instruments—in particular, his instrument, the keyboard—to hold center stage.

Dinnerstein will perform these four works in concert with musicians whom she thinks of as her colleagues and peers. They have long histories together, and with each other. 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.”

Flutist Christina Jennings, featured on Orchestral Suite No. 2, grew up with Fischer; both of their fathers were members of the Concord String Quartet. Jennings and Dinnerstein have enjoyed playing together several times over the past decade.

Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott (Have Mercy Upon Me, O Lord God), BWV 721

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, and Mühlhausen, composing some 46 in total.

“Such was the centrality of the chorale in Protestant Germany,” writes musicologist Richard Jones, ”that a substantial part of the training and activities of the organist and the composer traditionally revolved around it. The skills required were not just in harmonizing chorales but in improvising or composing more elaborate music, such as chorale preludes, on their basis.”

In Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, a different setting of the same text found in the St. Matthew Passion, Bach exceeds the expectations of a genre meant simply to inspire the congregants to sing at the prelude’s conclusion. ”I was drawn to the harmony,” says Dinnerstein. ”It has incredible harmony.”

Dinnerstein decided to commission an arrangement of this pulsing work with its striking dissonances for Baroklyn by composer, pianist, and music theorist Philip Lasser. A number of Lasser’s compositions depart from Bach’s, including his 12 Variations on a Chorale by J.S. Bach, recorded by Dinnerstein on The Berlin Concert (Telarc). Lasser has not changed a single note of Bach’s original, undertaking an imaginative re-voicing to shape the composition for these performing forces.

“We’ll begin with this little moment that has never existed before,” says Dinnerstein. “It will be like a meditation on Bach.”

Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067
Produced during his Leipzig years, Orchestral Suite No. 2 was likely the last piece that Bach ever composed for orchestral forces. Although it is titled an orchestral suite, in reality, it is a hybrid form closer to a concerto. In fact, most musicians refer to it as the B-minor flute concerto because that instrument is featured so prominently. Musicologist Joshua Rifkin writes of this popular work that it is “virtually emblematic of the flute itself.”

“This is a difficult piece to pull off,” says Dinnerstein, who will be leading Baroklyn from the keyboard while performing the accompanying continuo part. “Much of Bach’s music can readily be adapted, but this is of its time period and particularly Baroque sounding. It’s heavily ornamented. I’m eager to shape this with Christina Jennings, to try to find the lightness in it. As a suite, it consists of a series of movements based on French dance forms, and I’d like to find the spirit of the dance.”

Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052
Concerto No. 1 belongs to a cycle of six concertos written for the harpsichord that have special historical significance to the emergence of the keyboard concerto as a genre. Given Concerto No. 1’s profusion of violinistic figures and effects, it is likely that the piece was based on a violin work from Bach’s Cöthen or Weimar years, later adapted for the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.

Repurposing a work for alternative instrumentation was certainly a common practice for Bach. Taking one for violin, however, a popular instrument for which concertos were written, and giving it to the keyboard, an instrument that typically labored in the background, speaks to what he envisioned as an improved status for his instrument. Director of Leipzig’s Bach Archive Christoph Wolff sees in these adaptations “the invention of idiomatic keyboard figuration,” adding that the keyboard concerto “was to be taken up above all by Bach’s sons so that in Germany, until about 1750, it remained the exclusive preserve of the Bach family.”

“I think of it as the most profound of all the Bach keyboard concertos,” says Dinnerstein. “The second movement adagio is so dark and sad, it’s quite excruciating. It’s also difficult to play because it is quite drawn out. I’ve been working with Rebecca Fischer and the string players on that, thinking about the architecture of the entire movement and articulating a clear shape that guides the phrasing from beginning to end. It’s also about having the string players feel what I’m doing and playing in response, much like the idea of a Greek chorus.”

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050
One in a collection of concerts avec plusieurs instruments (concertos with various instruments), Bach dedicated Concerto No. 5 to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, likely in the hopes that it would help him secure a position at the Margrave’s court in Berlin. It did not work out that way for reasons that remain unknown, but that hasn’t stopped scholars from speculating that the concerto was either too radical or simply too difficult for the Margrave’s musicians.

Indeed, it is spectacularly virtuosic. In addition to Bach’s professional angling, the concerto was written with another purpose in mind: to inaugurate a new harpsichord whose purchase Bach had negotiated for Prince Leopold in Cöthen, where he was music director from 1717-23. An unprecedented keyboard cadenza bursts forth in the first movement. Musicologist Susan McClary characterizes that service-oriented instrument as “a darkhorse competitor for the position of soloist,” one that seizes the moment of the cadenza and “finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece.”

There are further examples of inventive scoring in Brandenburg No. 5. As a concerto grosso (group concerto) featuring violin, flute, and harpsichord, Bach offers a variety of combinations of those instruments. The approach to keyboard writing recalls the obbligato innovations heard on Bach Sonatas in Bach’s violin, flute, and gamba sonatas, where the keyboard alternates between participating with an equal voice and accompanying others. The middle movement is reserved for the soloists alone. “That happens in some of Bach’s other concertos, like the Concerto for Two Keyboards in C Major,” says Dinnerstein. “It creates an intimate moment in the middle of the piece.”

“Brandenburg No. 5 is just so sunny,” she continues. “I think of it as a very reassuring piece with the power to be uplifting. It’s also a great deal of fun to play.”


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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