Simone Dinnerstein at SOPAC

I should have mentioned this before, but the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) is a gem. It’s the perfect size for recital like Tuesday night’s by pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

Dinnerstein brings two things to the table: One, a deeply felt interpretive style; and two, finely detailed and transparent playing. Oh, and three, good programming sense.

Here is the lineup: The Copland “Piano Variations,” the Webern Variations Op. 27, Bach’s French Suite in G, Twelve Variations on a Chorale by J.S. Bach by Philip Lasser, and Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111. The underlying theme is of course, variations: The second and last movement of the Beethoven is a set of variations, and the Bach is full of repeats that offer the performer the chance to add her own variations.

We were running a little late and missed part of the Copland, so I can’t really comment on it. But I did want to hear what she did with the Webern. It’s difficult to overstate the influence Webern had on music in the last half of the 20th century, and his acolytes were just as extreme in their feelings as his opponents. And both, it turns out, equally wrong. Neither the deep intellectual exercise favored by the pros, nor the shallow intellectual exercise opposed by the antis, came out. Instead she played it like a Brahms Intermezzo, with a sense of lyricism and phrasing that gave it real emotional depth. The description from E., not a trained musician but a good listener, was precisely right for this emanation from the depths of expressionism: “sad.”

After the Webern she followed immediately with the Bach. The sunny warmth of the opening Allemande in G Major was like someone had opened the windows and the fresh air came pouring back into the room. She played with precision and a wonderful clarity in the inner voices that made the whole thing interesting (and fun) to listen to.

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After intermission was the variations by Philip Lasser. It’s an engaging set of 12 organized around the chorale theme, which remains pretty well recognizable throughout. Dinnerstein is supposedly a big proponent of this youngish (born 1963) composer’s work, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more of it.

And as the big finish, the monumental Beethoven Sonata No. 32 in C minor. Other composers spent the better part of the next 75 years trying to keep up with this amazing work. If you don’t know it, you should. I found her playing of it intensely interesting. My only quibble would be that her dynamic range wasn’t all there on the soft end of the scale. But she brought her by now obvious skill with the inner voices to bear to great effect.

The second movement variations are one of the high points of Beethoven’s output. Deeper and more dramatic than a lot of his symphonies, it sounds like he’s just returned in a time machine from the late 20th century, and has brought back samples of everything from Mahler and Phillip Glass to Gershwin and Brahms. In the case of Mahler, my guess is he just borrowed them from Beethoven. But like Picasso said, great artists don’t borrow; they steal.

Dissapointingly, the house was only about two-thirds full — even though we SHU people could get tickets for $8. $8 doesn’t even get you into a movie around here, but at SOPAC it gets you two hours of fine live music by a renowned pianist. And if you’re connected (like we were — thanks K.) it didn’t cost anything.

Come on people, support your local arts organizations!

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