3 Questions

3 Questions With Pianist Simone Dinnerstein

(Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

One of the best things about the term “rockstar” is that it can apply to pretty much anyone in music who kicks ass. It’s true, as well, in the classical sphere, where composers like Mozart were shocking, rollicking figures in their day, and where a pianist like Simone Dinnerstein can claim the title with sheer chops. Still, classical music is a tough nut to crack for some folks, so we wanted to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding it in a brief interview with Dinnerstein. You’ll find her digging into Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 twice this week at the Santa Fe Pro Musica Fall Orchestra Concert (7 pm Saturday, Nov. 5 and 3 pm Sunday, Nov. 6. $22-$92. Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W San Francisco St., (505) 988-1234), so it seemed a good time to bug her for some answers. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Let’s get into something uncomfortable right away, which is this idea that classical music is not always accessible. Is keeping music universal important to you, and if so, how do you go about that?

The way I think about it has to do with education and, you know, a lot of classical music is no longer taught in general education—elementary, middle, high school—and also, many children are not even studying instruments in school anymore. I think there’s a real connection between getting to play the music and also having it be part of what one learns about at school; being interested in the music and thinking it’s something you can enjoy. Personally, I’ve done various things over the years to try and bring music into public and elementary schools, and that’s just been my own way of trying to make it more readily available.

But I think this is true of not just classical music, but classic literature, art, the old masters in art, all of these older art forms...there just seems to be less of a place for them in society. I went to public school in Brooklyn, and I might have had a unique experience in that the music teacher at our school was quite eccentric and loved Renaissance music, so I grew up...studying music and people studied instruments at the school. But there have been a lot of cuts in music education funding. When I travel around the United States, it seems to vary by what areas you’re in. Some places I’ve gone to—for instance I’ve done mini-residencies in Fairfax, Virginia, where they have an active orchestral program and band program and the kids are exposed to a lot of music; whereas if you’re in New York City, there’s very little in the public schools.

There’s elitism in there, but I don’t feel the response is to dumb down the music. I think it should be available to everyone, and of course, because of streaming platforms, anybody can listen to anything. In terms of going to see a concert, I think personally the ticket prices are way too high, but on the other hand people seem to be perfectly comfortable [spending similar amounts] to see a basketball game.

When you have these pieces that have been played and reinterpreted so many times, like Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, for example, how do you make them your own? How do you help them evolve?

I think because we live in a time when so much recorded music is readily available, it’s very possible to listen to many different recordings. There’s a sense of tradition and understanding how things were played, but of course, all of these traditions are changeable, and what was stylistically correct in the 1950s is not considered correct in 2022, so you have to think about those changes in style.

When I’m playing a piece of music I’ve heard a lot, I stop listening to anything and I try to go back to the actual score, so I’m trying to delve into it in a way as if I’d never heard it before. I’m looking for all the things I think are interesting and have drawn me to the piece. Sometimes that can lead me in unusual directions—discovering a hidden line or voice I hadn’t heard before, or there’s an element that draws me thematically. It’s almost like being a detective. I never go at it like, ‘How am I going to play it different?’ I try to think of like having an unbiased view of a piece.

What is one misconception you wish you could dispel when it comes to concerts of this caliber?

I think that it would be wonderful if we could not focus on all of the formality around going to a concert and instead focus on the music. I think the reason we still play this music is it reflects something very true about us as people. The music describes emotions and beauty and sorrow, and there’s an architecture that’s compelling.

An analogy would be that I’m a big fan of the writing of Dickens, and I think one of the reasons I love reading his work...is I find it fascinating that someone from such a different time could describe people in a way that’s so familiar. It’s like holding up a mirror to ourselves, and I think that’s what great art does. If people who are not familiar could just listen to classical music in that way, they could find there’s so much richness.

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