American grasslands, the sea and two piano concertos

Another program in the Boulder Philharmonic’s year-long exploration of “Nature and Music”

Simone Dinnerstein will play two concertos at the next Boulder Phil performance.
Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

They  say God and the Devil are in the details, and in this case the details reveal a most unusual and intriguing program — one aimed directly at what the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra calls “The Spirit of Boulder.”

It is unusual, for example, that a pianist — in this case the remarkable Simone Dinnerstein — plays two concertos on the same concert. (Boulder audiences may be forgiven for not realizing that, after last summer’s Sergei Rachmaninoff marathon at the Colorado Music Festival, with Olga Kern playing five major works in two concerts.)

And it is intriguing that Dinnerstein has chosen to present George Gershwin’s jazzy Rhapsody in Blue alongside a new concerto written for her by composer Philip Lasser, a work founded in their mutual love for the music of J.S. Bach.

Equally intriguing is the juxtaposition of two orchestral works that take their inspiration from nature: Debussy’s La Mer — a beloved piece of orchestra fare firmly in the Impressionist mode — and Ghosts of the Grasslands from the Symphony to the Prairie Farm by contemporary eco-composer Steven Heitzig, who advocates for “peaceful coexistence of all species through music.”

If you only skimmed the publicity, you might think that Dinnerstein, whose career has been built with performances and recordings of Bach, was an unlikely soloist for Gershwin. In fact — those devilish details again — her repertoire is pretty eclectic, including not only her celebrated Bach recordings, but also Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, contemporary works she herself has commissioned, George Crumb, and a CD collaboration with North Carolina singer-songwriter Tift Merritt.

As for Gershwin, “I’ve loved [his music] since I was a child,” Dinnerstein says. “I came to Bach later. I’ve always loved jazz, [but] I’ve never studied it and so the Rhapsody in Blue is the closest I get to doing any kind of jazz.”

Bach may have come later, but Dinnerstein’s experience with his music influences her Gershwin performances.

“One of the things that playing a lot of Bach does is it really makes you think about clarity,” she says. “The Gershwin [Rhapsody] has a transparency to it that I don’t think you always are aware of when listening to it.”

If Bach lies beneath Dinnerstein’s performance of Gershwin, he is found throughout the score of “The Circle and the Child,” the concerto Lasser wrote for Dinnerstein. Lasser explains that the concerto has a Bach chorale “at its core. … The first movement brings us to the world of the chorale, the second movement is the clearest example of the chorale — you can hear it — and then the last movement is where the chorale would evolve.”

Like many great works of the past, the concerto grew out of a relationship of deep respect between composer and performer.

“It’s a unique experience playing this concerto because it was written for me by a very close friend,” Dinnerstein says. “It’s almost like a letter to me from him. I feel extremely aware of his presence in the music as a person, in a way that I don’t feel when I play music by dead composers.

“At the same time, I would say that Philip places a lot of trust in me and how I will interpret his music.”

Lasser agrees. “There is an enormous amount of implicit trust,” he says. “Some of the indications that I put in, she told me — and I take it as a great compliment: ‘I like them, but I don’t need them and I’m not going to look at them!’ I find that a very, very heartwarming thing, to have a performer say I know your music, I understand your music, so well that I don’t need to see these indications.”

The concerto’s title does not refer to a specific story, but to Lasser’s understanding of life and music.

“My titles are not trying to be overly descriptive,” he explains. “But they cast a deep insight into how I feel this piece goes, and music in general. For me, music, like life, travels on a circle of time from a beginning back to the beginning. Hence the image of the child who represents the repeating cycles of life.”

Lasser visualizes a circle for his listeners as well, one that loops back into themselves.

“I would like them to listen, travel with the work in pleasure, and maybe come into contact with feelings and memories of their own that the piece elicits,” he says. “I think that is the biggest compliment to a composer.”

The presentation will take place at Macky Auditorium in Boulder on Saturday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m., and at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek on Monday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m.