Are Classical Players Too "Fundamentalist"? Simone Dinnerstein on "Crossing Out" What's Written

Feb 24, 2015

Do classical players focus too much on the written notes for the good of the music? Simone Dinnerstein explained why she thinks so when we talked last week. You can hear our interview below. Dinnerstein is the pianist who rocketed from obscurity to the top of the Billboard charts and many best-of-2007 lists with a self-financed recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. (She had been working as a piano teacher in Brooklyn, but soon outsold a new White Stripes release.) In 2010, Sony signed her, and now she's made her first recording with a symphony orchestra. It's called Broadway-Lafayette and includes Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Ravel’s jazz-tinged Piano Concerto, and a beautiful new concerto, The Circle and the Child, written for her by her friend Philip Lasser. In our conversation she explained the album's title, and why she thinks that a printed score is not the same thing as the music. And she gave a fascinating example of why she thinks the relationship of composers to performers should not  be one-way  or top-down.

Dinnerstein told me that Lasser writes poetic descriptions in his scores along with the usual musical notation. But, said Dinnerstein, “He has a different feeling about words than I do, so the words didn’t make sense to me, and would make me play in an unnatural way. So I actually crossed out all of his words, and just played it how I felt the music was meant to be played. And then he loved how I played it. But when I tried to play it according to the words, it didn’t come off right. And we’ve joked about that, about how he has to cross out the words for me.”

This brought her to a more general point, which helps explain why her maverick approach to Bach and other composers is so convincing. She said that regarding scores, "Many musicians are fundamentalists," by which she means “somebody who takes a written work literally." But in her view, "Everything that’s written in a score is a very rough guide to what is meant -  it’s quite hard for composers to write down exactly what they intended." Further, she said, "There's a real element to musical writing which is about the relationship between the composer who writes it and the musician who brings that music to life. And the musician might find something there that the composer never intended but is there nonetheless in the music.

She's one of the most interesting musicians around, so give our conversation a listen. Then take the A-Train to Broadway-Lafayette, because the album is irresistible, whether you're a Gershwin-lover, a Ravel devotee, a Lasser fan, or (I'm willing to bet) a White Stripes fan.