Simone Dinnerstein, Self-Made Concert Pianist

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Simone Dinnerstein: Success has enabled her to “finally play how I wanted to play.”
Photo courtesy of Telarc

Simone Dinnerstein: Celebrating Her Inner ‘Variations’

(See Dinnerstein’s tour schedule; watch the pianist play in the video below.)

Simone Dinnerstein’s rise to prominence as a concert pianist has been anything but textbook. For one thing, it was becoming pregnant that gave her the resolve to learn the “Goldberg Variations,” which then became the vehicle to her success. Her self-produced CD of Bach’s 32-part masterpiece was picked up by Telarc Records, won all kinds of critical acclaim, and hit the top of the Billboard Classical Record charts. So did her second CD, The Berlin Concert,” also featuring the music of J.S. Bach.

Dinnerstein, at the age of 34, was suddenly a musical phenomenon. “Move over Glenn Gould, here’s Simone Dinnerstein,” wrote Slate, the online magazine, in 2007. Bogdan Roscic, the president of Sony Classical, the eminent record company that recently stole her away from Telarc, told Gramophone Magazine early in 2010, “the modern piano has been called a machine-age beast, and Simone is taming it in a unique way, to a level of intimacy and expressivity all her own.”

“The process of becoming a mother was a coming of age for me,” she said in a phone interview. “I was no longer a student. I could now take responsibility for myself and my musical choices. … I had a better sense of who I was.” Her son, Adrian, was born with Rosalyn Tureck’s recording of the “Goldberg Variations” playing in the delivery room.

Dinnerstein’s playing has been called a throwback to the style of players of earlier generations. After studying under Peter Serkin at Juilliard, she moved to London to work with Maria Curcio, who, she said, completely changed the way she approached playing the piano. “It was like having a connection to the past. The way she played had a very different sound. She had unusual ideas—about sound, about the way to connect technique with actually playing the music. It was very organic, and I had never thought about music that way. I fell in love with the idea of having that sound, and now I have it.” It has been described as a more legato, or sustained, style of playing.

Dinnerstein says she is simply not a flashy pianist, drawn, instead, to music “that dances.” “Bach’s music reflects off the interpreter,” she said. “It lends itself to different personalities, and to wildly different approaches.” Growing up, she idolized Glenn Gould’s seminal recording of the “Goldberg Variations,” but found herself, when she began the trial-and-error process of taking on each variation, trying different approaches. Thinking about it a lot, she finally discovered “what the music was saying to me.” Her version turned out to be radically different than Gould’s.

She borrowed money from friends in order to produce her recording, and then sent it to around for a year to various people in the industry. Finally, a producer at Telarc took a big risk on her. She remembers him saying, in their first face-to-face meeting, that he “heard something” in the recording. “It was a vision of what I wanted to do, the kind of musician I am,” she said. When all the success came afterwards—the reviews, the sales figures, the bookings—she realized that she had been given a gift: “to finally play how I wanted to play.”

“At school, I was pressured to conform. There was an expected way of playing. I didn’t fit. I couldn’t compete.” Success came only after many years of living what she calls the “normal life” of a piano teacher and freelance musician. Finally, she understood that “what was in my inner ear was enough to build a career.”

Dinnerstein grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where she now lives with her husband, Jeremey Greensmith, and son, across the street from her parents. She met her husband in London, where she had first traveled to work with Curcio during a summer workshop at the age of 15; they married when she was 20. (He now works as a fifth-grade teacher at the school where her son attends.) Her father, Simon, an artist, created many drawings and paintings of Dinnerstein at the piano, from the time she was a little girl. Several of these are featured on her website.

One is called “About Strange Lands and People.” “It shows me playing the piano at 12, working on Schumann,” she said. “My father can’t even read music, but he copied a page of the music into the painting. My piano teacher is in there. So is Glenn Gould. It’s about my dream to become a pianist.”

“In my family, being an artist was the best thing you could be,” she said. “My parents didn’t have a sense of being practical. What I do now is much more commercial than what my father does. He spends months doing one painting, without any particular intention of it being sold. I have a lot to live up to,” she said.

Recently, in Santa Fe, she presented Bach’s English and French Suites, as well as Schubert’s “Impromptus.” She just recorded the English Suites for her first release on Sony Classical, another all-Bach CD with Kammerorchester der Staatskapelle, Berlin. She recorded the French Suites a few years ago. It was interesting to play both on the same program, she said, and combining the Bach pieces with Schubert gave her an opportunity to explore what she sees as a strong connection between the two composers.

“The French Suite is an intimate, keyboard-style piece while the English is more orchestral, thicker, more substantial. The Schubert ‘Impromptus’ are joyful and funny. I enjoy ending concerts with them,” she said. “I think both composers wrote with a lot of singing and breath. Also, both have a sense of dance.”

Although Dinnerstein is frequently booked with major symphonies—she played engagements with the Tokyo Symphony and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 2010 and has a date with the Berlin Philharmonic in March 2011—she prefers recitals. “There’s less compromise. Except for the piano you have to play on, you’re in control. Sometimes you have an amazing experience with an orchestra and a conductor, but sometimes things are just put together too quickly, and you don’t.”

“When you come to a recital, you learn about the performer. The concert tells a story,” she said. “People also come just to hear the music. I try to make it live for them.”

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