Simone Dinnerstein on the music of Philip Glass

Ahead of her debut performance with the LSO, we spoke with pianist Simone Dinnerstein about the music of Philip Glass, what it's like working with Kristjan Järvi, and how she self-produced her first album to score a US Billboard Number One.

In the LSO concert at the Barbican on Thursday 29 November, Simone Dinnerstein performs the UK premiere of Philip Glass' Piano Concerto No 3, a work that was written especially for her. We started by asking her about the story of the piece.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Could you tell us how the concerto came about? 

Well, it started a few years ago when Philip Glass invited me for breakfast. We hadn’t met before then but I guess he’d heard my recordings and heard about me. During the breakfast, (it was so exciting to go to his home and meet him!) we talked about the possibility of him writing something for me. And afterwards, I had the idea that it would be quite interesting if he wrote a concerto for piano and string orchestra which would be paired with a Bach keyboard concerto. And he liked that idea and that’s how it all started.  

So you already had the idea that it would be paired with this concerto before he even started writing? 

Yes, in fact it’s interesting that the programme that the LSO are doing pairs Baroque music with contemporary works because every other performance has paired the Bach concerto with Philip Glass’.

Of course Philip Glass is such a huge figure, it’s kind of strange to imagine sitting across the breakfast table from him!

It was quite something! Actually when I arrived at his home, before I rang the bell I looked down at the doorstop and there happened to be a praying mantis just sitting on the door stop! You know you don’t see many of those in New York City. It just seemed that of all the doorstops it should be on, if felt right that it should be on Philip Glass’s – perhaps it was good luck!  

What’s he like? 

He’s extremely down to earth, funny and accessible. Before he even started writing I was performing a recital programme where I juxtaposed his music with Schubert’s music, going back and forth seamlessly without any pause. So I actually went over to his home again and I played that recital programme for him. I think that hearing me play that programme really influenced the way that he composed the concerto. The sensibility of it, the colour and the mood - I think those were really influenced by the Schubert in that programme as well.

So what were your first impressions of the concerto?

Well, he sent me just the first movement to start with, as a zerox of his hand written copy - he must be one of very few composers who still write music with pencil and paper! And I was immediately struck, not just that it was ravishingly beautiful, but that it suited me so well. It truly spoke to all of the things in music that I like to play. Later on I told him that I felt that way and how surprised I was at how much the music suited me. And he said, ‘well that’s because I wrote it for you!’  So that was quite something!

Did you get the chance to go over the music with him before you performed it?

Yes, so he gave me the full score in July 2017 before the premiere in September. And I had a couple of weeks with it before I went to his home again and played it for him, including the orchestral parts.

It was very interesting, after I played it for him, he made a few significant changes while I was there. And he discussed them with me. Which is a kind of strange situation! You don’t want to tell a composer what to write! Actually I never feel that it’s really my place to tell them what I think they should do. 

The changes that he made were actually quite unusual but I felt that they all made sense. The thing that was particularly striking about it was that he made a significant change to the third movement. And after he made that change, he then had me play through the whole concerto from beginning to end again. He wanted to hear how the change affected the balance of the entire piece. I always wonder about composers and how they think about movements, whether they do think about the movements progressing towards an entire architectural structure or whether they think of each movement in a more separate way. And it was fascinating to witness a composer thinking of a piece in that way.  

Wow, that’s a testament to the kind of musical mind he has I guess, to be able to listen like that.

Yes, and also his music is a kind of music where you have to have a lot of patience, you have to really be present in each movement and while it’s not fast moving, there is a lot of repetition. It all requires careful attention because I don’t think every repetition should be the same. So listening to the whole thing again with that kind of intense scrutiny isn’t to be taken lightly! 

Is there something special about this combination of string orchestra and piano for you? 

Yeah there have not been many concertos written for piano and string orchestra since Bach’s time, in fact, one of the few other ones is also written by Philip Glass, his first Piano Concerto also uses a string orchestra. As a combination I think it’s particularly beautiful because it brings out the string quality of the piano. 

The thing about the way that Glass composed this concerto, the piano and the strings are truly conversing with one another, and the different sections of the orchestra are speaking with each other. So the piano’s sound is truly integrated into the sound of the orchestra.  

So you’ve played it quite a lot I suppose – has it changed over that time, has its personality evolved for you? 

Yes it has changed quite a bit. This piece was a co-commission by a group of twelve orchestras, and I’ve played with two others and some of the orchestra have toured it so there’s been a lot of different performances with a lot of different ensembles and conductors. And some even without a conductor with me leading from the piano.  

So all those different experience with different musicians has changed the approach. Each time I play it I’m the one who’s most familiar with it, so I get to introduce it to each new ensemble and conductor. But each new ensemble and conductor brings their own personality to it and their own sound. And then when I go to the next orchestra I have the sound of the previous one in my head. So it’s been a interesting experience. I don’t think I’ve ever played a concerto this may times, this close together with so many different groups. So I think my understanding of temper relationships has evolved and also the general flexibility and freedom within the piece – the kind of ebb and flow of it has changed, yes.  

If you had to explain it to someone who wasn’t familiar with Philip Glass’s work, how would you describe it?

I think it’s a very introspective work, extremely lyrical with a lush sound that at times can get quite edgy. Sometimes it almost borders on a sound of classic rock to me. And it ends with this extremely meditative movement with a drone that’s in the bass for the whole movement pretty much. I would say that as a piece of music, it’s not about flash – it’s philosophical and personal.  

It’s not piano against orchestra. The piano and orchestra unite with each other and then there are moments when the piano it completely alone. It has an intimacy to it I would say.

What links Baroque and minimalist music for you? 

I think there’s a kind of abstraction to Philip Glass’s music which is in common with Bach’s music. And certainly as an interpreter of both, another commonality is that they both leave a great deal to the performer and the interpreter. There’s very little written in the score to indicate how to interpret the music. There’s very little in terms of phrasing, dynamics, tempo, articulation and as a result I think their music can be played in many different ways. That’ not true for many composers. Many composers have a type of sound, a type of stylistic restriction which keeps their music within a certain circle and I think the circle is very wide for Bach and Glass.  
You could hear a jazz pianist play Bach and you could hear a very Romantic interpretation of him or you might hear a period specialist play an interpretation on a harpsichord. But it’s always Bach. And I think that Philip Glass has the same sensibility. Like Bach he often transcribes his pieces for different instruments – you might hear a piece of his played on the organ and then played on the piano. And he will arrange his works multiple times for different instruments. Bach did the same thing. For me, that really speaks to the elasticity in their writing.  

What does that mean for you as an interpreter of them?

Well I think that it requires a great deal of imagination and thought for the larger architecture. Both Bach and Glass work with these very small motivic ideas that are built up into these larger structures. They often have very long sequences of repetitive ideas that are slightly altered, either harmonically or in terms of rhythm or voicing but there’s usually quite a lot of repetition. And that means that as an interpreter you have to make certain choices that will enable the audience to hear all of those shifts, and not get lost in the repetition. Thinking about how you’re going to do that and how it will work of the span of the entire piece is a very interesting process. There’s a lot of process in playing these two composers’ works.  

You’ve obviously worked together on things like Bach Inspired – what’s Kristjan like to work with? 

Oh Kristjan is a lot of fun. He’s quite different to me. I would say he’s quite an impetuous person and he certainly has a lot of energy and charisma. I always think of him as the John Travolta of conducting! I’m a much more contained and quiet as a person I guess. But somehow I think when we play together we influence each other in interesting ways. We’ve actually made a couple of albums together, we also recorded an album called Broadway-Lafayette with the MDR Leipzig. And on that album we did Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and the Ravel Piano Concerto as well as a piece that was composed for me by the American composer Philip Lasser. So I’ve had the experience of playing both new and old piece with him. I think he always brings a fresh approach to everything that he does.  

The other thing our audience should know about you is that your something of an entrepreneur, you actually self-published your first album and it got to No 1 on the Billboard charts. How did that happen? 

Yes so back in 2005 I was a freelance pianist in New York City. I didn’t have any management or a record label and I hadn’t won any major competitions. But I had been performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations and I felt like I had something to say. So I raised the money, found a producer and made the recording. Eventually that recording got picked up by Telarc, which is an audiophile label here in the US. And through a series of remarkable circumstances it got a lot of attention and went to No 1 on the classical music Billboard charts in the US the week that it came out! So suddenly my whole career changed and that led to me having an international concert career. At that time people weren’t really doing crowdsourcing as a means to fund projects like this – it was more of an indie rock approach to building your career. And so I’ve had an unusual route to where I am right now.  

Do you remember the moment you found out it had made Number One?

Yes, I remember very well, because I was on the radio being interviewed in New York City by our local public radio station. And the host of the show was actually the father of one of my ten-year-old piano students – teaching was part of how I made my living. So I was on his show talking about my new release, and we didn’t know about the Billboard then but we knew about Amazon, and for that hour or so I was on his show it was ahead of the White Stripes! And so he found this out, and he was so excited, here was his daughter’s piano teacher doing this! The whole thing felt quite unreal. It was extremely exciting but I did feel dazed, in fact I felt dazed for several years actually!  

You mentioned being a teacher there, you actually do a lot of music education work, don’t you?

It’s definitely very important to me. I went to public elementary school in the US (you would call it a state primary school) and I particularly like working with kids of that age – actually my favourite age groups are the nine- and ten-year-olds.

So I do something that I call ‘Bach-packing’ where I go into classrooms with a digital piano and play for the kids. We do lots of interactive exercises with them to help them unpack the music that they’re listening to, to hear things like counterpoint and how the hands are doing different musical ideas and different rhythms.

I find it’s extremely effective to work with one class at a time – you know 25 kids rather than a big auditorium. In fact, I just came back from a week of doing this out in Massachusetts and I couldn’t believe it but I actually got nine-year-olds to sing two against three in Philip Glass’ music! So I was very excited!

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