A couple of years ago in a New Criterion weblog post, I inaugurated “Bright Spots,” a series intended to celebrate “the good, the salubrious, the vital, the hopeful” in our culture. My subject in that post was the Harlem Studio of Art, a classical atelier founded in 2002 by Judith Pond Kudlow and Andrea J. Smith, remarkable artists whose most casual sketch is worth all the Damien Hirsts in China.
Perhaps it says something about the state of our culture that I have yet to pursue the series, at least by that name. I do believe, however, that what I said then is still true: that although it is “easy to fall prey to despondency and think: ‘The game’s up! Our culture is rotten to the core,’” really, if you look, “there are plenty (well, some) bright spots in our culture . . . that have been unfairly neglected or are as yet insufficiently known.”
I was reminded of that last night when I heard the pianist Simone Dinnerstein perform at the Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT. I’ve written about Dinnerstein in this space before. She is an extraordinary musician. As I said in that earlier posting, hearing her perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the house of a friend in New York was one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life. (A good intimation of that evening can be gleaned from her amazing recording of that sublime work.) Her performance last night, though in a less gemütlich setting, was equally impressive. It is difficult to describe exactly what sets Dinnerstein apart from other pianists. In my earlier post, I said that she did “not simply play the Goldbergs. She inhabits them, moving through its 30 variations like the rising sun through the rooms of a palace.” I witnessed the same phenomenon last night. With most pianists, however brilliant, you experience the music unfolding objectively before you with greater or lesser skill and feeling. Dinnerstein animates that exchange, making the music more of a collaboration, more a process than a product. This is partly a function of her extraordinary technical mastery. She moves with such effortless command through the music that she seems able to coax it out of the piano inchoate, shape and savor it, and then deliver it re-formed to the audience. The danger of this approach is a certain idiosyncrasy that can border on mannerism; the triumph, when it works, is a rare freshness and organic vitality, as if the music occupied not just self-consuming moments of time but somehow bulged briefly into spatial reality as well.
Such experiences are far away from our common world of economic panic and newly revived class warfare. I suppose that is one of the things that makes such oases so valuable: they remind us that the quotidian battles and disappointments that form the warp and woof of our common lives are not the whole, or even the most important part, of the story. So this posting is really a sort of gift to musical readers. Simone Dinnerstein is a tireless performer: her website, to which I linked earlier, carries her schedule. Sooner or later, she will be in a city near you. Don’t miss her.