NEW YORK — The simplest sound often hides the most complex development. This is true of both the music and method of pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The direct, pared-down playing of this 39-year-old musician has pricked the ears of the classical music world.
On Monday, Dinnerstein brings her distinct interpretations of Bach to Orange County's Segerstrom Concert Hall for her Orange County-Los Angeles debut — and unless you've heard one of her recordings, it's likely the composer's 250-year-old music will have a decidedly different sound.
"I'm not really interested in how Bach played it," Dinnerstein says on a sunny morning in her Brooklyn living room. "I'm playing Bach in 2012. It's an entirely different world than the world that he lived in. It would be impossible for me to imagine how he would play it." This view has won over many contemporary listeners. Her 2007 debut album for Telarc earned praise from the New Yorker ("lean, knowing and unpretentious elegance") to Oprah Winfrey ("a timeless, meditative, utterly audacious solo debut"). Times critic Mark Swed picked her as one of 2012's "Faces to Watch."
But Dinnerstein also rankles many purists. Her first album as part of an exclusive deal with Sony Classical, 2011's "Bach: A Strange Beauty" (featuring Bach's "English Suite No. 3," on the Segerstrom program), was reviewed by Mark Estren in the Washington Post: "Dinnerstein offers beautiful Bach, but it is far from historically informed Bach in terms of presentation. It is not just that Dinnerstein makes full use of the capabilities of a modern piano — it is that she employs them to extract emotion from the music that not all believe Bach put there."
While Dinnerstein's album photos present her as a brooding artistic soul, she comes across in person as forthright and warm. She shrugs off criticism not in a glib or pouty way but rationally. "I don't feel like I'm thinking, 'How did everyone else play this? Now what can I do that's different?' If I'm having an authentic response to the music, this is what comes out — when I try to be following rules that I was taught, it doesn't feel right to me."
She is equally undaunted by the rules of the classical music business. She dropped out of Juilliard at age 18 and married young; at 30 — and remember, the classical world with its child prodigies is no less ageist than Hollywood — she was without any of the trappings that suggest a major career (recording contract, bookings, management). Then, while pregnant with her son, she decided to tackle her favorite piece of music, Bach's "Goldberg's Variations," making her New York debut at Carnegie Hall playing this famous piece — not to mention raising the funds for the concert herself. (To put this in perspective, imagine an actress self-producing a remake of "Sophie's Choice.")
Luckily, Dinnerstein has an aura of grounded composure, which certainly helped her that night at Weill Hall. David Patrick Stearns, music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was there. "She had a memory lapse and had to start one of the variations over," he recounted via email. "Typically, that would've spooked the pianist and spelled disaster for the critics. But Simone recovered."
During our conversation, a large portrait of Dinnerstein as an 8-year-old hangs on the wall behind her. The painting, by her father, Simon (an established New York artist), shows the young Simone seated at a Baldwin piano as Glenn Gould and other musical legends look down on her. Clearly, this is a woman unfazed by expectations or pressure.
"Usually, my first instincts about how to play something are the ones that I return to," she says, "but I try to make sure that that is indeed how I want to play it by going through a pretty circuitous path." Since mastering the "Goldberg Variations," she says, her process has remained the same.
"Getting towards an interpretation for me is a paring-down process, where I start by playing it in many ways — and I really try to go to extremes," she says. "Gradually, it feels like there's almost a magnet drawing me to something. It almost becomes stronger because I've tried it in so many other contrasting ways." Growing up, Dinnerstein idolized pianist Gould. These days, a major influence is Leonard Cohen. Like those two elusive artists, Dinnerstein says she prefers the recording studio to touring, adding, "To me, it's the most pure form of expression."
"I liken performing — and the whole relationship between the performer and the audience — to being a little bit like when you are going through the process of going through therapy," she says. "It's really easy to project everything onto the audience, the good and the bad. You can interpret their silence as hostility or you can interpret it as appreciation.... When I'm recording, I feel like I'm totally alone. It's just about the music."
While she may prefer the relative solitude of the studio, Dinnerstein is no recluse. Later this summer, she's scheduled to perform at London's Wigmore Hall and also has concerts planned in Leipzig, Germany; Verbier, Switzerland; and Shippensburg, Pa. Her Orange County recital is all Bach, but Dinnerstein is not only interested in music from centuries ago. She also regularly hosts a series in Brooklyn where students perform modern music and she'll soon be performing and recording new commissions by contemporary composers such as Nico Muhly and Philip Lasser. Her next CD is a collaboration with alt-country songstress Tift Merritt, which will include variations on Cohen's melody from his classic song "Suzanne."
At a recording session in Manhattan last week with both Merritt and her producer, Adam Abeshouse, she appeared to thoroughly enjoy the give and take of collaboration. Hearing Dinnerstein accompany Merritt's rock 'n' roll guitar playing on a haunting ballad, it becomes clear why her Bach often sounds less like court music and more like something a troubadour might perform spontaneously. Dinnerstein doesn't just play the piano, she tries to communicate through it. "Every artist is reflecting all of the influences that they've had in their life. They're trying to understand something about our world and describe it in the only way that they can," she says. "And for me, it's even another step away from it because I'm really a re-interpreter. I'm not creating something from scratch, so I'm drawn to certain pieces of music because of what I hear them reflecting."
Whether it's performing a folk song or a Bach partita, Dinnerstein says she's simply telling a story. "I like the word 'troubadour.' In terms of trying to make sense of my life, I sometimes think of myself as a wandering bard," she says. "That way, performing makes sense to me. Folk singers like Leonard Cohen — I don't know if you'd call him a folk singer, but he's in that tradition, like Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez. To me, their strength lies in the simplicity with which they can convey a song. It's not about their vocal antics — and they all have wonderful voices — but it seems very simple what they're doing."