‘Rising star’ pianist fascinates McCain listeners

Ben Nyberg

By A Contributor

American Pianist Simone Dinnerstein, gorgeously clad in flowing gown with trailing gossamer attachments a la Isadora Duncan, presented a program of works by Chopin, Daniel Felsenfeld, Brahms, Schumann, and J. S. Bach for a scant McCain Auditorium gathering of some 350 persons this past Thursday evening.

No question about Dinnerstein’s having both talent and conviction, and she applies both to undeniable effect. Her ability to integrate and articulate multiple musical lines, voicing each beautifully even at high speed, is likewise indisputable, which helps explain why her Bach is mostly so very satisfying.

At age 39 she’s still a young performer, especially given that concert pianists tend to keep going into their 80s, 90s, even 100s (think Horszowski), and what’s troubling is that the wave of international success she’s currently riding may solidify her commitment to the highly individualized interpretive style that has taken her so far.

Why should that be cause for concern? Because as of now Dinnerstein is a fully dedicated tonal colorist whose exceptional technical capacity for exploring the subtlest nuances in shading often leads her to exercise that ability in over-emphasizing certain musical values to the marginalizing of others equally important. If she wants to be one of her generation’s great artists, she needs to keep refining her responsive range.

Thus, the opening Chopin nocturne (Op. 27, No. 2) was both suitably dreamy and smoothly coherent. But the dreamy smoothness was also so very seamless, so relentlessly steady, it just wasn’t Chopin. For all the excellent voicing, the essential character of the piece was modified to serve its interpreter’s distinctive preferences.

The Brahms intermezzo received a similarly massaged treatment. The notes were certainly there, but the composer’s unique angularity and energy seemed cloaked in a reading that wove its strands into a far too comfortable fabric.

Of The Cohen Variations (strangely, the only work for which any program notes were provided) composer Felsenfeld writes that it was written specifically for Dinnerstein, “a love letter to her capacities.” So there can be little question that her execution of these variations on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” was definitive.

After intermission, Dinnerstein gave us her reading of Schumann’s beloved piano cycle. Kinderszenen. It offered her ample scope to exhibit the full range of her special interpretive skills. It also provided her with numerous opportunities for interpretive idiosyncrasy.

Although the mechanical challenges of some of Schumann’s “scenes” are basic enough that even ham-handed duffers like me have had a go at them, it’s the enviable right of real professionals to find and reveal the delicious complexities hidden within their superficial simplicity. And Dinnerstein’s delicate touch did discover many of these.

Sadly, she also allowed her soloist’s unilateral will to impose expressive gestures contrary to the spirit of the cycle. Most of it was stylistic exaggeration: suspensions over-extended, tempos drawn out or rushed, softness muted to whispers, loudness pedal-assisted into muddled roaring. 

Happily, both halves of her program ended with Bach (Partitas Nos. 1 and 2). As their positioning served to underscore, Bach is clearly Dinnerstein’s strong suit, and she held all the trumps she needed for a grand slam finish. Having ended on a high note, she let us keep our final impressions undisturbed by encores.

A fascinating evening, and a “rising star” to watch.

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