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Acclaimed pianist returns to perform with Gonzaga Symphony

Thu., Oct. 15, 2009, midnight

The road to fame for classical musicians is marked by some standard mileposts: Begin your training very early, when you are 3 or 4. Win an international competition with its complement of tours and recording contracts.

Simone Dinnerstein didn’t take that path. Still, two of her recordings have been No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts in the last two years. And the New York-based pianist is much in demand as a recitalist, chamber musician and orchestral soloist in the U.S. and Europe.

Dinnerstein will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major (K. 488) on Friday at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.

The surprise – for some, at least – is that the orchestra for her Spokane performance will be the Gonzaga Symphony, with whom she previously appeared here in 2007.

“Sometimes a major artist learning a new concerto or having some important performances coming up wants to try out the piece ‘out of town,’ ” says conductor Kevin Hekmatpanah.

“Two years ago Simone wanted to try Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ (piano concerto) before playing it in Europe. Now she’s back with Mozart before she plays three performances of it with the Baltimore Symphony.”

Hekmatpanah has also programmed orchestral works by Grieg, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss Jr.

Dinnerstein grew up on Park Slope in Brooklyn, the New York City borough where she still lives with her husband and son.

“Neither of my parents are musicians,” she says. “My father is a painter and my mother a teacher who specializes in early childhood education.

“When I was 5 my father had won the Prix de Rome so we lived in Rome for two years and I took ballet classes. The pianist who played for our classes would play Chopin, and I fell in love with the piano and the music, so I asked my parents if I could take piano lessons.”

Her father thought she might be a little young for piano, so Dinnerstein took two years of recorder lessons before beginning piano studies when the family returned to Brooklyn. She studied with Solomon Minkowski at the Manhattan School of Music and later entered the Juilliard School, taking a break to study in London with Maria Curcio.

After her graduation from Juilliard, the Piatigorsky Foundation sponsored her in concerts that took her to small towns and unusual venues such as nursing homes, community centers and even a prison.

As Dinnerstein approached her thirties, things took a different turn.

“Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations had always been my favorite piece of music, something I had listened to since I was a teenager,” she said. “What made me decide to learn it was a couple of pieces of news that came together at the same time.

“First, I had won an audition that sponsored a debut recital in Philadelphia. While I was deliberating about a program for that, I found out I was pregnant.

“The pregnancy and the recital opportunity gave me the courage to learn the ‘Goldberg’ Variations. I knew there would be a long stretch where I could prepare and I thought it would be a very beautiful, meaningful piece to be learning during this time.”

Dinnerstein’s success with the “Goldbergs” in Philadelphia, New York and on the road encouraged her to record the work, paid for by friends. Released on the Telarc label, it made its way onto The New York Times recommended records list and became No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s classical list.

She was 33, an age at which most famous concert artists are in mid-career or burned out.

A second album to achieve equal success was the recording of a recital Dinnerstein made in Berlin in 2007. In August, Dinnerstein’s recording with cellist Zuill Bailey of Beethoven’s music for cello and piano was issued by Telarc.

Bailey, a 10-year collaborator, is behind Dinnerstein’s connection with Spokane.

“Zuill and I are old friends from our student days at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore,” says Hekmatpanah. “(He) suggested she come out here to try out her ‘Emperor,’ and now she’s coming back with Mozart.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our orchestra to get someone of her caliber, and it good for her to be able to have the opportunity to try out the piece. She is so easy-going and warm, but she plays up a storm.”

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