A Record Release Party for the Under Twelve Crowd

By: Edna Landau

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A new record release is a cause for celebration. Most artists arrange a party to which they invite press, industry contacts and friends. There is food and drink, the artist performs a bit, and recordings (often autographed) are given to the guests. Not so pianist Simone Dinnerstein, at least for her most recent recording, J.S. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias (Sony Classical). Ms. Dinnerstein is celebrating her newest recording by going “Bachpacking” to ten New York area schools, in which she is doing as many as three presentations a day, and seven schools in Washington, D.C.  Her interactions with the students are up close and personal, intentionally taking place in the classroom, rather than in large auditoriums. “Bachpacking” refers to the digital Yamaha keyboard that she anticipated transporting  to schools that don’t have their own pianos, but which Yamaha kindly delivered. Although educational initiatives have been a cornerstone of Ms. Dinnerstein’s career to date, I was so moved by her decision to share her music in this way that I contacted her publicist, Christina Jensen, to find out more and to see if I might be able to attend one of her classes.

I learned that the Inventions were the first keyboard pieces that Simone Dinnerstein remembers hearing, at the age of nine. She wanted to play one of them but her teacher said she wasn’t ready. When she did begin to study the Bach works, they were a window for her into the world of counterpoint since, until then, music had always seemed to her to be about melody and accompaniment. Bach wrote the Inventions in 1723 as a musical guide for keyboard players and they are often thought of as training pieces. Simone speaks of the Inventions and Sinfonias as “marvels in demonstrating just how potent counterpoint is as an aid to expression”. In one class of fifth graders, she compared the roles of two hands in a Bach piece to a Jay-Z –Justin Timberlake duet, hitting a home run with the students. In the 50-minute class I attended at the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change on West 135th street in New York City, she compared listening to a Bach Invention, which may be totally new to the listener, to watching a foreign language film. Even if you don’t understand the language, if you start to watch the action and facial expressions, you begin to get the gist of what is going on. In the Bach, you can listen to what each hand is doing and start to understand how the piece is constructed. Simone divided the class in half and had students from both groups describe what they heard from each hand. The students also enthusiastically participated in rhythmic and singing exercises to enhance their understanding of the music. All in all, she played four Inventions and one of the Goldberg Variations. Discipline was exemplary, owing largely to the advance preparation done by the class’s dedicated music teacher, Salima Swain. The crowning glory of this project was to be a daytime concert at Miller Theater for all of the students Simone visited. Arrangements had been made for them to come by bus and subway to hear selected works from her nighttime concert at the theater the following day. Unfortunately, the concert was canceled due to a heavy snow storm. The program would have included Nico Muhly’s You Can’t Get There From Here, written especially for Ms. Dinnerstein, a part of George Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, which features some playing inside the piano, and of course, some Bach Inventions. She would have spoken about some of the pieces and, wanting the students to have a true concert experience, she was planning to wear concert dress and perform with concert lighting. No such special concert has been planned for Washington, D.C., but the Washington Performing Arts Society, which is presenting Ms. Dinnerstein at the Kennedy Center, helped coordinate her school visits and has offered free tickets to her recital to students in the classes she is visiting.

What forces were involved in pulling off such an ambitious project? Simone downplays the scope of it, explaining that she just started working on it about a month before it was to happen. Since she was playing her only New York concert of the season at the Miller Theater, she approached them for introductions to schools around the city. She contacted the principals and music teachers at the various schools herself and arranged all the scheduling. Sony Classical International in Berlin engaged a New York based videographer, Tristan Cook, to make a “Bachpacking” video. Sony Masterworks in New York provided transportation to the various schools and also provided copies of Simone’s new CD to the teachers.  Katy Vickers at Christina Jensen’s office worked to secure media waivers from all of the students participating in “Bachpacking”, clearing the way to invite media coverage. These included News Channel 12 Bronx, News Channel 12 Brooklyn, and NY1. As a result, a host of New York City teachers have been in touch regarding a second tour. There are additional interviews set up around Simone’s upcoming national recital tour, and it is her hope that presenters on future tours will work with her to organize similar school concerts in their area. Of course, central to all of this is Simone’s passion for weaving an educational component into her ongoing concert and recording activity. She credits her mother, Renée Dinnerstein, as her inspiration. She described her as “an amazing teacher who worked day and night and, as an educational consultant, still goes into the schools to share her experience with teachers.” Simone’s mother made a point of talking about her work at home and stressed the importance of education, a point that was clearly not lost on her daughter.

I asked Simone whether she had been presented with any interesting questions by the students during her school visits. She said that they hadn’t been about music but one third grade student asked if she had to practice on her birthday. Another asked if her hands hurt after she plays and a third, whether she has to wear sunglasses on the street because of paparazzi (!). While we can’t know how much of a future musical impact she made on the young students during her whirlwind educational week, judging from the faces and energetic body language I observed, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if someday, some of them will tell the next generation that the door to their appreciation of classical music was opened by a famous pianist who came to their school to share her love of Bach.

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© Edna Landau 2014

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