The last time Simone Dinnerstein performed at Stratford Summer Music's increasingly ambitious festival (for which, full disclosure, I give a series of lectures), she ran into an all-too-typical professional musician's travel-disaster scenario.
She was due to arrive in Toronto in the late evening after playing a gig in Washington. The plane was delayed. The limo driver hired to drive her to Stratford figures the flight is cancelled. He goes home. But the flight arrives, midnight or so. No driver. So, Dinnerstein takes a cab to Stratford. Arrives three or so in the morning. Performs the next day. At noon. The 90-minute Goldberg Variations.
This time at Stratford, things are going to be a bit more relaxed for her next performance of the Goldbergs, one of her specialties. Dinnerstein is spending a few days with her husband and his parents in the town devoted to Shakespeare and music. Only her 14-year-old son is missing. He can't see Shakespeare in Stratford, because he's performing Shakespeare in his native Brooklyn – he's Gloucester in a production of King Lear.
And it's too bad her son will be missing, because he figures prominently in her now-familiar rags-to-riches musical success story. Because it was when Dinnerstein got pregnant with her son that she decided to learn a piece she had always admired but never had the courage to play – the famous Bach Goldbergs. Eventually, the recording she made of the Goldbergs – self-funded in 2007 when no label was interested in having anything to do with her – rocketed her to musical super stardom, virtually overnight, where she's been ever since.
That would be the second pianist in history whose career was made, overnight, by a recording of the Goldberg Variations. The first was a Canadian chap named Gould, back in 1955. And it was Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldbergs – his second in 1981 – that first drew Dinnerstein to the work when she was 13, but also paralyzed her from attempting to play it for more than a decade. That's true for a lot of pianists – but they don't go on to record a version of the work that can stand proudly next to Glenn's.
Dinnerstein is an immensely thoughtful musician who remembers her first encounter with both versions of the Gould recordings of the Goldbergs. "With the '55 recording, you think, 'Oh, how remarkable that somebody could play like that,' but you don't think, 'How remarkable this music is.' But you do feel that with the 1981 recording. I just relate more directly to the later recording. The music speaks to me in a certain way."
But her judgmental faculties fail her when I ask her why she thinks her recording of the Goldbergs had such an immediate and visceral reaction when it appeared in 2007. "Of course I wonder about that, because it literally changed my life," she says, "but I'm not sure. You could ask that of any event in life that has an impact. Why, at that moment, did that person or thing have an impact? It's hard to say."
However, if I may venture to answer my own question, I think that when you listen to Dinnerstein's Goldbergs you don't think how remarkable that somebody could play like that or how remarkable this music is. You think, how remarkable a human spirit runs through this music, how intimate and approachable and finely tuned this performance is. And Dinnerstein tells me that she's been rethinking her decade-and-a-half relationship with the Goldbergs after two interesting experiences this past year.
One was playing the piece to accompany Jerome Robbins's choreography of the work, which forced her to adjust her interpretation to his, and the other was a collaboration in which she helped re-orchestrate the Goldbergs for piano and string orchestra. It was a revelation for her, she says, allowing her to hear the work in an entirely new way.
"Bach is one of those composers where you feel all of his instrumental music could be sung," she says. "There's the implication of words in it without there actually being words. You have the feeling that something is being spoken or said through the music that is very potent. We know what it is, but it's not in words."
Dinnerstein's quote reminds me that her 2012 album of music by Bach and Schubert was titled Something Almost Being Said, a reference to lines from poet Philip Larkin. "The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said."
It's no surprise to me that this most poetic of pianists would make such a reference, because, almost a decade after her fairy-tale beginning, the princess with the glass slipper has become a ruler of wisdom and humanity.
Simone Dinnerstein performs at the Stratford Summer Music Festival July 21-23 (stratfordsummermusic.ca).