Boulder Phil: Pianist Simone Dinnerstein returns

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Simone Dinnerstein is an internationally known concert pianist. Philip Glass has written a new piano concerto for his former young fan, which she will play Jan. 13 and 14 for her return to the Boulder Phil.
Lisa Marie Mazzucco

The first time Simone Dinnerstein attended a concert alone she was 12, and she heard music by Philip Glass.

Dinnerstein has since become an internationally known concert pianist and Glass has turned 80. Remarkably, he has now written a new piano concerto for his former young fan, which she will play Jan. 13 and 14 for her return to the Boulder Phil.

“It’s exciting when you discover music as a young person, and it’s your own music that has not been shown to you by a parent or a teacher,” Dinnerstein says. “So there is something kind of surreal about having him write something for me. And the fact that he wrote something as magnificent as this piano concerto is really an incredible honor.

“I can’t quite digest the fact that he wrote that for me.”

Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 3 will be on a program titled “Bach Transfigured.” The concert, featuring the orchestra’s strings under music director Michael Butterman, will also feature the Symphony in C Major by C.P.E. Bach, Transfigured Night by Arnold Schoenberg, and J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G minor.

A strong connection to J.S. Bach runs through the program in several strands. The most obvious is that Dinnerstein is known for her poetic performances of Bach’s music, and she finds much in common between Bach and Glass. That connection is emphasized by the pairing of Glass’s new concerto with Bach’s G-minor Concerto, which was planned as part of Dinnerstein’s tour with the new work.

The tour began with the world-premiere performance in September, and incudes 16 other performances extending through May. The Boulder Phil is included on the tour as one of the commissioning organizations for the new work.

Beyond the Dinnerstein-Bach-Glass linkage, the other works on the program represent Bach’s wide-reaching influence. “I thought we could look at other composers who had some [connection to] Bach,” Butterman says. “Clearly his son (C.P.E. Bach) would be among them, and Schoenberg was a master of counterpoint and understood the heritage from which he arose.”

Dinnerstein speaks of the aspects of Bach that she finds in Glass’s music. “There’s an imprint that Bach has made into all of Glass’s music,” she says. “Perhaps he was thinking about that even more when he wrote this, because it would be (paired with Bach’s) concerto.”

The use of repetition, so obvious in Glass’s music, is one of the things Dinnerstein finds similar to Bach. “In Bach’s music you have harmonic sequences, or a rhythmic pattern or melodic pattern, but what is so interesting is how Bach slightly alters the sequences,” she says. “Glass does the same thing. People think, ‘Oh, it’s just repeats.’ It’s not repeats. When it’s repeated, something has changed.”

Dinnerstein is particularly touched by the fact that Glass tailored the work specifically for her. “The way that he writes for piano, the language and the tone that he took for the whole piece suits my playing so much,” she says. “I said to him, ‘it’s kind of uncanny how much this music feels like it suits me, like it fits who I am.’ And he said, ‘Well, I wrote it for you!’ That was pretty amazing.”

Dinnerstein finds it hard to specify exactly what in the music fits her so well. “It’s a piece that’s very intimate,” she says. “The music is extremely poetic, but also there is a very rich inner world to the music. It’s speaking in a way that only instrumental music can.”

Butterman sees C.P.E. Bach’s style in the Symphony in C as a kind of declaration of independence from his father’s generation. He imagines the younger Bach saying “I’m going to use a few obvious Baroque gestures, but I’m also going to throw in some intentionally jarring harmonies. This is the way the kids are going these days.”

“C.P.E. Bach was obviously a composer who wanted to assert his own identity but still acknowledge his father,” Butterman says. “I interpret the symphony as having one foot in both worlds. It’s appealing, it’s ingratiating, and it’s got a few cheeky qualities to it.”

As for Transfigured Night, Butterman wants you to know that this is not written in the atonal, 12-tone style for which Schoenberg later became notorious — and a scourge for many audiences. It was written much earlier, and it tells a powerful story of love and unconditional forgiveness that will be explained in the program.

“This is a highly Romantic work,” Butterman says. “The language is deeply expressive and emotional, and those are always qualities that audiences respond to. If we didn’t tell you it was Schoenberg, you’d guess Mahler or Wagner. It’s in a language that you’ll recognize.

“If you understand the emotional transformation that is projected through the music, you’re going to have a powerful experience.”

On the Bill: “Bach Transfigured.” Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor and Simone Dinnerstein, piano.

C.P.E. Bach — Symphony in C Major, Wq 183, no. 3; Schoenberg — Transfigured Night; J.S. Bach — Keyboard Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058; Philip Glass — Piano Concerto No. 3, Colorado premiere, a Boulder Phil co-commission.

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder.

2 p.m. Sunday, Han. 14, Pinnacle Performing Arts Complex, 1001 W. 84th Ave., Denver.

Tickets: boulderphil.org/concerts/2017-18-season-overview/bach-transfigured