The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who performs Dec. 4 in Madison, talks to The Ear — Part 1 of 2

November 27, 2009
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

American pianist Simone Dinnerstein is one of the first classical pianists to successfully ride the wave of new media.

While record companies were cutting back on artists and recordings because of the competition from digital downloads, Dinnerstein topped Billboard’s classical chart with her self-financed debut recording of J.S. Bach’s mammoth and famed “Goldberg” Variations.

(The popular and critically acclaimed recording – named one of the Year’s Best by The New York Times, ITunes and the Los Angeles Times — was released by Telarc, for whom she has now recorded “The Berlin Concert” and the complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano by Beethoven.)

Dinnerstein will make her Madison debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater on next Friday, Dec. 4, at 8 p.m.

Her solo recital program includes Bach’s French Suite, No. 5, Anton Webern’s Variations for Piano, Philip Lasser’s “Twelve Variations on a Bach Chorale,” Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations and Franz Schubert’s first set of Four Impromptus, Op. 90 or D. 899.

Tickets are $18, $25 and $30 with $12 for young people 6-18; and $10 for UW students. Call 608 262-2201 or visit

For the blog The Well-Tempered Ear, Dinnerstein, just back to her New York City home from concerts in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe, recently answered some questions via e-mail. Her interview will be divided into two parts to run today and tomorrow.

You established your career in a non-traditional way, without winning a major competition. Could you recount how and why you did that? How difficult was it? What does it mean for other young musicians? What advice would you give young performers today hoping for a professional career in such a competitive environment?

After I graduated from Juilliard, I entered the life of a typical freelance musician. I played a lot of chamber music concerts and worked collaboratively with other instrumentalists. I did a certain number of solo recitals that I set up through my own efforts at networking. I became affiliated with the Piatigorsky Foundation, which has a small roster of musicians that it sends around the country on short concert tours playing in communities that might not otherwise be exposed to a live Classical concert. I taught privately in my own home.

For a time I entered competitions, but I was not successful mostly because I would become so stressed by the competitive environment. Eventually I won an audition for Astral, an organization based in Philadelphia that helps to develop the careers of young musicians.

They were extremely helpful in many ways, not least of which was in boosting my self-connfidence. They encouraged me to think imaginatively about my career and to develop my strengths.

I decided to learn and perform Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations for my Philadelphia debut, which they presented.  That led to me recording the variations, which started a very surprising path to the career that I am now enjoying.

It is tremendously difficult to be a young musician and I would say that the most important advice I can give is to try to discover where your interests and strengths lie and to develop them. You can’t control the way the world reacts to you, but you can be sure to nurture your own voice so that you have something worth saying.

You perform for prisoners. Why do you perform such outreach concerts? What you they get out of it and what do you get out of it?

I’ve performed twice in prisons, once in a high-security prison in Louisiana for the Piatigorsky Foundation and most recently in a prison in Baltimore on a visit set up by the Baltimore Symphony.

If ever there was an experience of hearing music freshly, it’s when it’s played in a prison.  There’s nothing musical about that atmosphere. And yet when you start playing, everything becomes musical. It’s a really extraordinary experience.

I should add that one of the most perceptive and thoughtful reviews of my playing I’ve ever read was published in the Avoyelles Correctional Center prison newspaper.

Tomorrow: In Part 2, pianist Simone Dinnerstein talks about her Madison program on her Dec. 4 recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and you will find more links to video and interview sites with information about Dinnerstein.

Posted in Classical music

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