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Not Only My Favorite Interpreter of Bach, But Also My Favorite Pianist

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Roger Kimball

Glenn Gould used to be my favorite interpreter of Bach. Since Simone Dinnerstein’s recordings of Bach began appearing, beginning with her Goldberg Variations in 2007, Gould has assumed the somewhat less exalted status as “one of my favorite interpreters” of Bach. My absolute favorite these past 6 or 7 years is Dinnerstein. Indeed, she is not only my favorite interpreter of Bach, she is my favorite pianist, period (if one can still enjoy that now-freighted locution.)

Membership, as the AMEX people keep telling you,  has its privileges. Last night, at a semi-secure undisclosed location, members of the Friends of The New Criterion, were thrilled to have Ms. Dinnerstein perform Schumann’s haunting “Kinderszenen,” the 13 “Scenes of Childhood” that Schumann wrote in 1838, followed by Bach’s “Inventions,” the 15 short pieces Bach wrote to introduce his children and students to the mysteries of counterpoint. (Ms. Dinnerstein has just released a CD of Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias for Sony, and she often performs one or more of the Kinderszenen.) It was a magical evening, reminiscent of the evening some of us spent at Bill Buckley’s New York apartment in 2007 where Ms. Dinnerstein performed all 32 of the Goldberg Variations for a rapt audience.

I have written about Simone Dinnerstein in the space before (here, for example, and here). Last night’s performance prompts me to repeat what I wrote in 2008 after hearing her perform at Lincoln Center:

Perhaps the most ravishing musical experience of my life was listening to Simone Dinnerstein play Bach’s Goldberg Variations’s at the home of a friend in Manhattan last autumn. In the weeks before the performance, I had listened several times to a CD of Dinnerstein’s remarkable 2007 interpretation of the work, but hearing her en famille, as it were, in the intimate setting of a living room with a dozen friends dramatically heightened the experience.

But it was the performance as well as the setting that made the evening so special. Hitherto my gold standard for renditions of this majestic piece of music was Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording. (Gould made a second recording shortly before his death, age fifty, in the early 1980s.) I especially admired the astringent clarity and architecture of Gould’s playing. Gould burrowed deep into the structure of Bach’s music, revealing its bones and sinews. His astonishing technical command allowed him to exhibit latent conversations within the music, rhythmic and emotional exfoliations that elaborated themselves with pristine lucidity, like crystals forming and dissolving in an ice-cold, light-inflected mountain stream.

Dinnerstein’s Bach is a warmer, but no less lucid creature. Like Gould, Dinnerstein commands a breathtaking technical mastery. And like him, she has made the music her own. She does not simply play the Goldbergs. She inhabits them, moving through its 30 variations like the rising sun through the rooms of a palace. Each chamber is suddenly illuminated and its distinctive character gradually revealed as the light lingers in loving dialogue with the soul’s furniture. And just as each day’s light has its own discoveries and omissions, so it was with Dinnerstein’s performances of the Goldbergs. Anyone who had heard the CD of her performing the work would have instantly recognized her stamp on the performance that evening. But what was remarkable was how distinctive each rendition was: like a familiar landscape seen at noon and then again an hour before dusk.

Dinnerstein is a master of rubato–listen, for example, to the way she coaxes Variation 4 to unfold itself before us–but also she handles the presto passages with breathtaking aplomb: her joyful unpacking of Variation 14 is a case in point. Dinnerstein’s Bach is perhaps less cerebral than Gould’s, but no less intelligent. There is an amplitude to her convocations that Gould’s austerity wouldn’t countenance.

But I revisit Dinnerstein’s Goldbergs merely as a prelude to mentioning her performance yesterday at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York. Her late-morning concert, part of the Center’s Great Performers series, included two preludes and fugues (numbers 9 in E-major and 3 in C-sharp-major) from book II of the Well-tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Sonata 13 in E-flat major, and Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, a curious, amusing and bemusing work by the contemporary American composer George Crumb. As an encore, Dinnerstein played the lovely A-major intermezzo from Brahms’s opus 118 suite of piano pieces.

It was a memorable occasion. Dinnerstein’s signature combination of technical command and patient lusciousness informed every moment. Her playing is less idiosyncratic than Gould’s, but no less distinctive. Her taste – witness the Crumb – ranges widely, yet there is a clarifying purity to her playing that inoculates it against mannerism. Her personality touches and enlivens all she plays, but one always feels that the focus is on the music, not the music maker. This is true artistry, a sort of musical midwifery in which the point is not the performer but the thing performed. I hope you’ll have an opportunity to hear her (her concert schedule is posted here). You’ll certainly be hearing a lot more about her.

And so you, if you pay any attention at all to classical music, have.  Dinnerstein’s Goldbergs catapulted her to classical musical stardom, and her several subsequent CDs — I recommend in particular “Bach: A Strange Beauty” — have consolidated that impressive debut.

*****

Cross-posted from Roger’s Rules

image via bach-cantatas.com

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Why Does Classical Music Make You Smarter?

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 - by David P. Goldman


Thirty-six million Chinese kids now study classical piano, not counting string and woodwind players. Chinese parents pay for music lessons not because they expect their offspring to earn a living at the keyboard, but because they believe it will make them smarter at their studies. Are they right? And if so, why?

The intertwined histories of music and mathematics offer a clue. The same faculty of the mind we evoke playfully in music, we put to work analytically in higher mathematics. By higher mathematics, I mean calculus and beyond. Only a tenth of American high school students study calculus, and a considerably smaller fraction really learn the subject. There is quite a difference between learning the rules of Euclidean geometry and the solution of algebraic equations: the notion that the terms of a convergent infinite series sum up to a finite number requires a different kind of thinking than elementary mathematics. The same kind of thinking applies to playing classical music. Don’t look for a mathematical formula to make sense of music: what higher mathematics and classical music have in common is not an algorithm, but a similar demand on the mind. Don’t expect the brain scientists to show just how the neurons flicker any time soon. The best music evokes paradoxes still at the frontiers of mathematics.

In an essay for First Things titled “The Divine Music of Mathematics,” just released from behind the pay wall, I show that the first intimation of higher-order numbers in mathematics in Western thought comes from St. Augustine’s 5th-century treatise on music. Our ability to perceive complex and altered rhythms in poetry and music, the Church father argued, requires “numbers of the intellect” which stand above the ordinary numbers of perception. A red thread connects Augustine’s concept with the discovery of irrational numbers in the 15th century and the invention of calculus in the 17th century. The common thread is the mind’s engagement with the paradox of the infinite. The mathematical issues raised by Augustine and debated through the Renaissance and the 17th-century scientific revolution remain unsolved in some key respects.

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Pianist Van Cliburn, Dead at 78

Thursday, February 28th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

Picked this up from the Washington Post:

Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of the great 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.

The family moved back to Kilgore within a few years of his birth.

Cliburn won his first Texas competition when he was 12, and two years later he played in Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.

My family had a music store when I was growing up, and Van Cliburn was generally considered a demigod at least by every piano teacher in the Southwest — the Texas boy who had beaten the Soviets at their own game, winning the First International Tchaikovsky Competition so decisively the Russians couldn’t deny it. I met him once when I was about 10, and vaguely recall that he seemed awfully young — he would have been about 36 — and that he seemed to have big hands.

He died of bone cancer in Fort Worth, where he made his home.

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Quote of the Day: Somtow Sucharitkul

Monday, February 11th, 2013 - by Charlie Martin

I want to believe that when i perform any piece of music, it is as if it is being heard for the first time. As if it was actually being composed as it is being played. This is because I am not really a conductor, I am a composer.

Yes, this is also Somtow Sucharitkul the science fiction writer.

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A Christmas Eve Musical Gift of Love

Monday, December 24th, 2012 - by Myra Adams
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On Christmas Eve, gather up your loved ones and to listen to Amy Grant sing Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song).

This is my favorite modern Christmas song and one I cannot listen to without tearing up.

The song takes you inside the mind and heart of the person who would become the world’s most revered Jewish teenage mother as she is about to give birth, in the most difficult of circumstances, to a baby she was chosen to bear — the One who will impact the world like no other.

Merry Christmas to all and especially those who truly love this mother and Baby.

 

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Jesus Is The Reason For The Season But He Influences Us Daily

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012 - by Myra Adams
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With over 40 million views, this video captures the essence of the article you are about to read.

A funny thing happened “on the way” as I was contemplating writing this piece. While listening to a Christian radio station the announcer said, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

At that moment this very familiar phrase hit me like a thunderbolt. For not only is “Jesus the reason for the season,” but Jesus is the reason our world, nation, history, culture and society are the way they are.

So regardless of whether you believe in Jesus, practice another faith, or are devoid of faith, Jesus has impacted you by virtue of the fact that you are alive.

For no person has affected mankind – past, present and future –more than this Jewish teacher who lived over 2000 years ago, whose birth we will celebrate with great fanfare.

Although Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were the impetus behind His followers’ establishing Christianity, the world’s largest religion itself is only the starting point for the influence Jesus spawned in countless non-religious venues as people over the centuries were moved and motivated by Him to express themselves in a multitude of ways that we continue to see played out everyday across the planet.

With so many examples of Jesus Christ’s effect on mankind it is impossible to even mention them all in this short piece — the purpose of which is to not only enhance your celebration of “the reason for the season” but to also increase your awareness of just how much Jesus impacts the world around you every day of the year.

If after reading this piece you are moved to delve deeper into this topic, I recommend a book published in 1994 that has since become a “modern classic,” What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?, co-authored by the late Dr. D. James Kennedy and the still very much alive Jerry Newcombe.

This book had a profound influence on me as it oriented my thinking about Jesus in ways that I had never contemplated.

So here in alphabetical order is only a short, incomplete list of the most obvious “non-religious” aspects of how Jesus Christ has impacted the world.

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Classic Rock and Jack Daniels: The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Leads to the Kennedy Center Gala

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012 - by Myra Adams

What is it lately with Washington types obsessing over Led Zeppelin?

The Zep boys at their peak.

First it was Congressman/VP candidate Paul Ryan exclaiming that his iPod playlist “ends with Led Zeppelin” during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC). This revelation caused a mini-ruckus and inspired the house-band to play the lamest version of the Led Zeppelin song “Rock and Roll” that I have ever heard.

Then, just last week the Kennedy Center announced the honorees for their upcoming Honors gala. This event (which I must admit I have attended several times, decades ago) affords the opportunity for Washington’s power elite to slobber all over A-list Hollywood types.

Washington Post reports:

The award is the nation’s highest honor for those who have influenced American culture through the arts. It comes with a dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a reception hosted by President Barack Obama.

So this year, honored in a group that includes Dustin Hoffman and David Letterman will be “the surviving members of the rock band Led Zeppelin.”

Washington Post continues:

The three surviving members of the Britain’s Led Zeppelin — John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant — are being honored for transforming the sound of rock and roll. They influenced many other bands with their innovative, blues-infused hits such as “Good Times Bad Times,” ‘’Immigrant Song,” ‘’Kashmir” and “Stairway to Heaven.”  The band, which has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, issued a joint statement saying America was the first place to embrace their music.

Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center Honors? I bet this band really did issue a “joint statement.”

These are the guys who practically invented the concept of sex, drugs and rock and roll – or at least elevated it to legendary new heights, while, along the way trashing hotel rooms and spawning several books on groupie exploits.

Does anyone remember the shark story? Now I am even more amazed to find a Wiki reference to this sordid tale.

Notice how the Washington Post mentions “three surviving members” of the band. Let’s take a moment now to remember drummer John Bonham who infamously died choking on his own vomit after 40 shots of vodka.

John Bonham at the drums.

Regular readers of this semi-absurd weekly series are now fully aware of my personal devotion (obsession?) with Led Zeppelin. But what is really getting weird is how the “universe” continues to place Led Zeppelin directly in my path.  (I know this all sounds totally “New Age” crazy but please hear me out!)

It all started while I was leaving for the RNC in Tampa and had finished writing (but had not yet sent to the editor) what was the third installment of this new series — a piece about the first Led Zeppelin album and its profound effects on the teen-age me in 1969.

Then mid-week after Paul Ryan mentioned Zeppelin during his RNC speech, the crowd went nuts, so I renamed the column and changed the ending.

Now, you could just chock that up to good timing, but stay with me here for this goes much deeper.

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Condoleezza Rice playing Schumann’s Fantasiestucke, Op. 73 with Cellist Kjell Stenberg

Friday, July 13th, 2012 - by Roger L Simon

Amidst recent rumors that Condoleezza Rice may get Mitt Romney’s nod for the vice presidency, it’s worth acknowledging that Rice would be pretty much the most accomplished person in high elected office in our country in recent years, possibly ever. She is a Russian literature scholar, fluent in the language, and a classical pianist at a professional or near-professional level. (The thought of her debating Joe Biden has definite comic overtones.) Here she is playing Schumann’s Fantasiestucke, Op. 73 with cellist Kjell Stenberg just last May:

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Cross-Posted from The Tatler

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