Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Night to Remember with Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein

Earlier generations might not be able to handle the concept of of juxtaposing Appalachian and classical music on the same stage. But songwriter/bandleader Tift Merritt and pianist Simone Dinnerstein have their fingers on the pulse of the future. Thursday night at their sold-out duo performance at Merkin Concert Hall, they held the crowd riveted with an intense, intimate performance that put each musician’s strengths under the microscope as they made unexpected connections between traditions from throughout the ages on both sides of the pond, Dinnerstein’s fiery baroque and Romantic interludes juxtaposed against Merritt’s elegantly plaintive chamber pop. Most of the material was drawn from the two’s nocturnal song suite, Night, just released (and reviewed at Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily).

The stage set foreshadowed what the concert would be: a pair of comfortable padded chairs at either side of the stage in low light from a couple of floor lamps. Merritt teased the crowd – “We’re not going to talk to you …we’re still not going to talk to you” – as the two made their way from Schumann, through a solo acoustic version of Merritt’s  plaintive Only in Songs, then glimmering themes by Schubert and Purcell. Dinnerstein’s gravitas and flinty irony balances Merritt’s biting wit and mercurial persona: they are very different peas in the same pod and obviously good friends. Merritt has established herself as a southern intellectual in the tradition of Faulkner and Welty; Dinnerstein represents for the old guard. Of the many eye-opening moments at this concert, the most impressive were when the two ventured into jazz, with a take of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain that was so sensual it was lurid, and a bit later an expansive, commissioned work from Brad Mehldau, I Shall Weep. Swing is a rare quality in a classical musician, but Dinnerstein has it: both she and Merritt have futures in jazz if they feel like it.

But it’s more likely that they’ll continue to cross-pollinate. Dinnerstein revealed a fondness for George Crumb and played resonant dulcimer lines inside the piano behind Merritt’s finely nuanced, wary mezzo-soprano. Merritt told how Dinnerstein had introduced her to an operatic rendition of the English folk ballad I Will Give My Love an Apple that Merritt instantly recognized from its slightly less antique American folk version – and then they played it as moody, lingering  art-rock. The biggest hit of the night was Dinnerstein’s rapidfire romp through the Allemande and Courante (make that tres courante) from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Although Merritt admitted to being shy about playing the piano in front of her bandmate, she impressed with her own tersely brooding, gospel-fueled take of Small Talk Relations.

Dinnerstein’s subtle dynamic shifts followed a trajectory from bittersweetly neoromantic to bracingly modern throughout Daniel Felsenfeld’s Cohen Variations, a suite based on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. After Merritt sang a rapt, quiet version of Patty Griffin’s Night, the concert reached its peak with the poignant, crescendoing, saturnine anthem Feel of the World, which Merritt had written for her well-traveled grandmother. The duo encored with a very clever mashup of Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve with La Vie en Rose, which Merritt sang in flawless French. The two are soon off on US tour; the schedule is here. Dinnerstein is also at the Greene Space for an on-air performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on March 28 at noon; the performance is free but tickets are required.

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March 23, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Simone Dinnerstein and ACME Play Bach at the Miller Theatre, NYC 1/30/10

A fearlessly iconoclastic, mostly successful attempt to reinterpret the cutting edge of three hundred years ago via the cutting edge of now. Pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s formidable chops are matched by a laserlike emotional intelligence – for her, playing Bach seems to be a treasure hunt. Last night at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Dinnerstein drew a gemlike, detailed map of the intimacies and intricacies within a selection of segments from the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Art of the Fugue as well as the D Minor and F Minor Concertos (BMV 1052 and 1056), accompanied by the estimable American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).

Among the joys of playing Bach is the challenge of bringing to life the incredible range of emotion in the compositions without jumping the rails, without falling back on the tricks of the Romantic trade, i.e. dynamics that weren’t typically utilized in the classical music of Bach’s era. Dinnerstein has famously topped the classical music charts with her warmly legato interpretations of Bach – this time out, she put more of an individual stamp on the music than she usually does, adding an impressive forcefulness to that legato and taking some judicious liberties with the time signature. Most of that was limited to intros and outros, but there were moments where Dinnerstein would add or pull back for a microsecond when a particularly poignant phrase or emotionally charged chord would resonate more strongly. It worked like a charm, notably in the Well-Tempered Clavier pieces: the plaintive midsection of the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C Sharp (BWV 872) and the glimmering, shadowy whisper-and-response of Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E (BWV 878). That even such subtle dynamics would be so impactful speaks equally to the quality of the performer and the material. Hubristic? Maybe, but not compared to, say, Yngwie Malmsteen.

New music titans ACME didn’t run up against any resistance that wouldn’t disappear with more rehearsal and familiarity with the material (although it’s impossible to get through Juilliard without being on relatively comfortable terms with Bach). The quartet of Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata on violins, Nadia Sirota on viola and ensemble leader Clarice Jensen on cello squared off as something of a string section backing Dinnerstein’s tersely and exquisitely voiced rock band on the D Minor Concerto. As the night went on, they loosened up – within an Art of the Fugue segment, the procession of textures from Kelli Kathman’s flute, to Alicia Lee’s bass clarinet, to Eric Huebner’s harmonium and then back to Dinnerstein were a rigorous yet joyously athletic game of hot potato. And the vibraphone, played with smart understatement by Chris Thompson, made a worthy out-of-the-box addition to the textural feast. At the end, on the F Minor Concerto, the string quartet cut loose with Dinnerstein from the first few bars, discovering a vivid tango melody, then in the third movement employing a playful and tremendously effective recurrent pianissimo accent at the end of a series of sprightly phrases to add considerable depth.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Simone Dinnerstein with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, NYC 7/8/09

The pretext of the evening’s performance was “From the Danube to the Rhine,” the two feeder rivers of northern Europe and some of the composers associated with them. Simone Dinnerstein’s warmly lyrical recording of the Goldberg Variations topped the classical charts a couple of years ago: this time out, she matched rapidfire precision to a fluidly expressive style , joining the orchestra on Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto in A. Essentially, it works two themes, a nocturne and a stomp, variations on some glimmering upper-register work and a fiery cascade down to the lowest registers, respectively. Dinnerstein pulled out every piece of shimmering moonlight in the former and a gatling-gun staccato on the latter. Musicologists disagree on how many movements the piece has: the conventional wisdom is six; thematically, there seem to be half as many, the highlight being a deliciously anthemic, crushingly chordal Rachmaninovian run up the scale in what would be the second. She didn’t make it look easy, because it wasn’t, and her unaffected intensity earned her a well-deserved standing ovation. Not bad for her second-ever Lincoln Center performance.

After the intermission, conductor Bramwell Tovey led the orchestra on an inspired romp through Brahms’ Hungarian Dances #4 and #10. In 19th century western Europe, popular composers’ gypsy themes tended to be of the ersatz variety, akin to most of what fueled the 1950s’ mambo craze here. With this suite, Brahms sought authenticity, and the first of the pair show off some stark chromatics and trills, set aloft on the wings of the strings. The second could have been a pretty folk dance from pretty much anywhere.

The orchestra had warmed up with Johan Strauss’ Overture to Der Zigeunerbaron, a perfect illustration of faux-gypsy if there ever was. To the credit of conductor and orchestra, they did their best to endow it with the dynamics and passion of a work far more substantial, but even that failed to elevate it above the level of schlock. In a perhaps intentional stroke of irony, they closed the program with Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite. The opera itself is completely buffo, a drag drama that plays off all kinds of buffoonery created by multiple disguises. Yet the incidental music, first assembled as an integral suite decades after the opera’s 1909 debut, is impressive, from the strikingly modernist atonalities that begin the soaring, passionate overture, to several spot-on parodies of Johan Strauss waltzes that recur throughout. There’s also a recurring “uh-oh” motif, usually before Baron Ochs, the opera’s lumbering bull in a china shop, gets to wring some cheap laughs from his lines. As much as everyone onstage was obviously having a good time with the silliness, it was the lush, cinematic string-driven exaltation that carried everyone away. It was a worthy sendoff for retiring bassist Shelly Saxon, bowing out after 38 distinguished years with the ensemble.

The NY Philharmonic has some tantalizing outdoor concerts coming up in the next week before departing for Vail for a series of shows (see our live music calendar for dates and programs); Simone Dinnerstein plays selections from her highly anticipated cd of Beethoven works for piano and cello with cellist Zuill Bailey at le Poisson Rouge on August 27.

July 9, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment