Bach, deeply

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein will play Bach Sunday at the Kennedy Center.
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein will play Bach Sunday at the Kennedy Center.

“The first keyboard piece of Bach that I remember hearing were his Inventions,” renowned New York pianist Simone Dinnerstein wrote recently. She talked about how impossibly expressive and virtuosic the music sounded, noting it was “wholly beyond my abilities” as a young music student on the cusp of being a teen.

On Sunday, Dinnerstein will play all 15 of Bach’s Inventions at the Kennedy Center for a program sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society.

Brooklyn-born and bred, the 41-year-old pianist still lives in the Park Slope neighborhood not far from where she grew up, with her husband and teenage son.

Drawn to the piano while in a ballet class for 5-year-olds, Dinnerstein begged her parents for lessons, but they didn’t acquiesce until she was 7 and they appropriated her grandmother’s spinet for her to practice on.

“I was a pretty good sight reader, and I hated practicing,” Dinnerstein admitted. “So, for my first two years of lessons, I really got away with murder by pretending I practiced. I really loved to play the piano, but I just didn’t like to practice.”

A new teacher saw right through her and she became self-disciplined despite her parents, including her father, a visual artist, who didn’t see it as their job to force their only daughter to rehearse.

Eventually, she enrolled in Juilliard because her parents felt she needed the security of a college degree. But Juilliard didn’t take because she had found a teacher in London, Maria Curcio, who inspired her. (It also didn’t hurt that her boyfriend – now husband – was a Londoner.) Dinnerstein’s rise to prominence in the classical music world came about at moderate pace, through assiduous application and hard work, rather than a youthful breakout performance. She spent a few years in her 20s teaching and building her experience and honing her technique instead of rushing forth as a technical prodigy.

Few truly fine pianists fully blossom in their teens or early 20s. “I think that our whole culture is really obsessed with youth,” Dinnerstein remarked. “It’s not just in classical music; we see the same thing with a pop star like Justin Bieber, too. There’s a real interest and excitement for prodigies in the classical music world. People are very impressed and enthralled with that technical capabilities aspect of very young performers who are very facile.”

But this pianist looks for something deeper, more assured, more mature. “Sure there’s the performance where you can hear someone lay out a million notes in a minute,” she said. “But that wasn’t me … I don’t really go to concerts to hear that either. I prefer to hear someone who is saying something interesting and the music is thoughtful and heartfelt. And I don’t think that lends itself to youth … those qualities, but those usually come with age and experience.”

And that’s the experience she’s bringing to the Bach Inventions, which were released in Dinnerstein’s latest recording this past month on the Sony Classical label (Simone Dinnerstein: Bach Inventions & Sinfonias).

While these pieces captured her imagination as a youngster, returning to them again and again in succeeding decades has enriched and deepened her appreciation of the mastery of Bach’s compositions. They provide, she said, both lessons in playing and in listening to the multiplicity of voices coming from the instrument.

Interestingly, Dinnerstein remarked, “I’ve had a lot of really interesting interactions with rabbis who say they have been profoundly affected by Bach’s music, as I have been, but of course the music is as Christian as you can get.”

Also on the program is a new work “You Can’t Get There From Here” by hot young composer Nico Muhly. The work for solo piano was commissioned by the Terezin Music Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the musical legacy of composers lost in the Holocaust while also fulfilling their unrealized artistic and mentoring roles with new commissions by emerging composers. It premiered in 2012 at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Asked about the disproportionate number of Jews in the classical music world, Dinnerstein said: “I think there are fewer Jewish classical musicians than there used to be. In my parents’ generation I would say there was a much higher number of Jewish musicians. If you go to Juilliard now the primary ethnic group will be Korean, Japanese or Chinese. I think that, of course, there is the stereotypical way of thinking that there is some kind of Jewish philosophy that promotes a real interest in education, culture and the arts. You can see that historically in field like music and science.

“But,” she continued, “I think there’s also something about the expressivity of the classical music that is something that I would say is typically Jewish. What’s fascinating, though, is that all of the classical composers are not Jewish.”  It’s the musicians, those who interpret and perform who, particularly in the 20th century, were frequently Jewish.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein will perform Sunday 4 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets, $25-$85, are available by calling 202-467-4600 or visiting 

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