The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why can’t I like the piano playing of J.S. Bach by Simone Dinnerstein? Plus the UW and Sun Prairie High School Wind Ensembles team up tonight for a FREE concert of music by Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty.

November 30, 2012

ALERT: At 8 p.m. tonight in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble with the Wind Ensemble from Sun Prairie High School, and conductors Scott Teeple of the UW and Steve Sveum of Sun Prairie High School, will perform a FREE concert featuring several compositions by Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty (below), composer-in-residence, who will be attending the concert. A free pre-concert discussion will be held at 7:15 . The program features “Motown Metal” by Daugherty (Madison Premiere); “Bells for Stokowski” by Michael Daugherty (Madison Premiere); the combined UW Wind Ensemble and Sun Prairie High School Wind Ensemble in “Country Gardens” by Percy Grainger/Rogers; “Blithe Bells” by Percy Grainger; and the Sun Prairie High School performance in “On the Air” by Michael Daugherty (Madison premiere).

By Jacob Stockinger

Then there is pianist Simone Dinnerstein (below) – pronounced “Simona Dinnersteen.”

I really want to like her playing.

Mostly because I really like her story.

She beat the odds and she beat the system.

I like that Dinnerstein attended Juilliard, where she studied with Peter Serkin; that she graduated, start teaching piano lessons privately while she began her family; and that she herself then established her own busy international career in these days when most soloists need to win a competitions or generate controversy to get a big name agent and big money contracts.

Dinnerstein did it by financing a her own recording of J.S. Bach’s monumental “Goldberg” Variations. It was received well by critics – though not by me — and sold well. So she got a regular contract, first with Telarc and now with Sony Classical. Her datebook of tour bookings is now filled years in advance.

She became an in-demand star with a following far and wide.

We have already heard her twice in Madison, once in a solo recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, when she played Bach, Schubert and Phillip Lasser; then with the Madison Symphony Orchestra when she played Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto. Both appearances disappointed me overall, thought hey had some high points.

But Dinnerstein sure sells a lot of recordings and plays a lot of concerts. She is a certified phenomenon.

So what is wrong? Is it me? Or is it her?

Here is a link to a fine profile with lots of background on Simone Dinnerstein:

It’s just her playing, not her, I can’t stand.

And I have tried.

But it is just too ponderous, too self-indulgent for my taste. I am especially turned off by her Bach, which is supposed to be her specialty.

The very qualities I don’t like were well perceived by the New York Times reviewer Vivien Schweitzer, who heard phrases extended to the breaking point with self-consciously expressive mannerisms and senselessly slow tempi. Look at her take on Dinnerstein, which is the second review in the group:

Decide for yourself. Here is a link to recent live performance in an NPR studio (below).

The NPR mini-concert features Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, which is also included on her latest CD:

See if you can make it all the way through the performance of “Bach Between the Notes.” The Ear, who would just prefer better notes without so much in-betweenness, could not.

What do you think of Simone Dinnerstein and her Bach?

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