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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When you listen to Simone Dinnerstein play piano, you can almost see her fingers fly across the keyboard.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Lovely. Although what sounds good to most of us may not meet her standards. This performance did not.

Ms. SIMONE DINNERSTEIN (Pianist): Would you mind if I had one more shot at it?

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Simone Dinnerstein was playing part of a famously difficult piece. One person, one piano and 90 minutes from start to finish. Her version of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" is making her, at age 35, famous. She sat down at the piano for a talk with Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

She was in New York, at radio station WNYC. We were listening down the line, just the way you are listening now. She's playing an entire series of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach. The story, which Dinnerstein isn't sure she buys, is that he composed the variations for a nobleman. He was an insomniac who wanted something to hear at night. Dinnerstein's own musical story begins when she was a girl.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: I first heard the piano when I was about 4. And I was taking a ballet class. And I just loved the sound of the piano.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: I wasn't just in love with the music, but I just knew that I wanted to do was to be a pianist. And I remember telling my friends that that's what I wanted to be when I grow up.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: I have to say I never really liked practicing all that much. And for the first two years, my neighborhood teacher was a very wonderful woman. I was able to fool her because I was very good at sight reading, and so I wouldn't practice. And I'd just come in and sight-read the music. And she thought I had practiced. And then, my parents, after a couple of years, they realized that I seemed to really be pretty serious about this. And they found a teacher for me, a very good teacher. And he was a very strict and tough. And he saw through me immediately.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: My parents are - they were very interested in art of all kinds. Whenever we went to museums, I had a sketchbook, and I would copy - I would draw the paintings that we were looking at. And so, we have lots of those drawings from when I was a kid.

INSKEEP: When you - you're there with that sketch book, looking at some great work of art and trying to reproduce it, is that a little bit like what you then ended up doing with great classical pieces? You take somebody else's masterpiece and you try to reproduce it in the modern day.

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: It's more than that. It's more than copying. I think that music on a page can be interpreted in hundreds of different ways. And even if I knew that the composer played it a certain way, I still might not want to play it in exactly that way.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess just for starters, when we talked about the "Goldberg Variations" by Bach, you are using a different instrument than he would have intended it for at the beginning.

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: Yeah. Yeah. That would…

INSKEEP: The instrument of choice then was the harpsichord.

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: Yeah. And in particular, it was a harpsichord that has two keyboards. And some of the variations are very specifically written for one hand to be on - for each hand to be on a separate keyboard.

So, playing it on the piano has certain kinds of challenges, like physical challenges, because you're having to kind of cross hands all the time. And sometimes you have to actually share keys with - between two fingers from two different hands. I just feel that playing I it on the piano is a much - I mean, I'm biased because I'm a pianist, but I think it's a much richer experience than playing it on a harpsichord. I just - I prefer the sonority of the piano and the range of sounds, the possibilities, the different kinds of touches.

INSKEEP: Well, would you play for us one of those variations that is extremely complicated to get down on a piano - "Variation 5" from the "Goldberg Variations?"

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: In a variation like that, I watch my hands and I actually have to figure out - it's a careful choreography of which hand I look at, at what time. Sometimes I look at the wrong hand, and then I get confused.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: But I need to know which one it is that I look at. And in other variations, I actually don't look at my hands at all and I just play with my eyes closed.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: A lot of this piece is about listening. And as a player, when I'm playing it, I'm actually really listening to it. I'm responding to the sound, and part of it is hearing how one sound leads to the next sound. And how I hear it immediately affects how I'm playing it.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: When did you start seriously studying this piece of music?

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: 2001? 2001, Yeah. I was going to be presented in a debut recital. And then, I discovered that I was pregnant, and knowing that I had this big debut recital made me think about the fact that I wanted to learn like a kind of momentous piece of music to go with this big life change that was about to happen to me. And the first thing that came to my head was the "Goldberg Variations."

INSKEEP: Your son is now how old?

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: He is five - as he would say, five and three quarters. He's…

INSKEEP: Oh.

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: …he's going to be a six coming up.

INSKEEP: Well, that means that he's older than you were when you first started agitating to play the piano.

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: Yes. Yeah, it's interesting.

INSKEEP: Has he been agitating to play anything?

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: You know, he really enjoys playing the piano. And since he was quite little, you know, as soon as he could really - I guess from the age of 3 or so, he liked coming and sitting next to me and playing and improvising, and we would improvise together. And in fact, it's very funny to see him do an impression of me playing the "Goldberg Variations," because the poor boy has heard this piece way too much. And he does a great impression of the crossing hands and the fast fingers, but it's completely cacophonous.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: That's Simone Dinnerstein at a Steinway piano at member station WNYC in New York, City. Her recording of the "Goldberg Variations" is a classical hit. And on our new music Web site, she explains how she plays it differently on every piano.

Simone Dinnerstein is one of 2,000 artists at that new site - a collaboration between NPR and stations across the country. You can find it all at npr.org/music.

It's NPR News.

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