Simone Dinnerstein Rethinks The Goldberg Variations

01/11/2017

Bach, The Goldberg Variations: Simone Dinnerstein (piano), Pam Tanowitz (choreography), Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey, 22.10.2017. (KG)

J.S. Bach – The Goldberg Variations

At this point in history, some 375 years after Bach’s Goldberg Variations, few scholars hold on to the notion that the composition was written at the behest of an insomniac count who wanted something to lull him to sleep. Nevertheless, it makes for such a good story that some still cling to it. In 2015 at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, in a softly lit environment designed by Marina Abramovic, pianist Igor Levit played the variations to an audience invited to have a half-hour nap beforehand.

On the other hand, Brooklyn-born pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s staging, created with choreographer Pam Tanowitz and entitled New Work for Goldberg Variations, suggested anything but slumber. With stage lighting changing through the course of the 90 minutes (presented without interval) and seven dancers circling the piano in Tanowitz’s bustling choreography, Bach’s masterpiece turned into what felt like more of a full day’s activity than a full night’s sleep.

Seen here at Montclair State University, and part of MSU’s Peak Performances series (this year dedicated to works by women), the collaboration received its premiere at Duke University earlier in October, and later toured to Boston, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

The evening began in darkness: As Dinnerstein played the opening aria, a single spotlight gradually focused the eye in the dimness. The dancers—dressed in multi-tone pastel tunics, as opposed to the pianist’s concert black—seemed to materialize out of the air as they stepped into the soft light. They stood motionless for a few seconds before taking unison steps away from the piano and off the stage again. They returned and left again, in duo and trio (there were seven in all), stepping purposefully to Bach’s metered phrases.

A few variations in, the lights brightened, and Dinnerstein increased the tempo, hurrying the dancers in the process. It was tempting to think one had lapsed into a dream state but no, rather than a linear concept, the pianist offered pacing, structure, and phraseology, accompanied by the dull thuds of shoeless feet meshing with Bach’s melodies.

Dinnerstein’s playing was nothing short of spectacular. She first came to acclaim in 2007 with a recording of the Goldbergs (after playing them for six years) and the music certainly hasn’t faded from her memory. If it seems superfluous for another pianist to record a centuries-old masterpiece, hearing either her recording (on Naxos) or live in 2017 makes one realize that old works can still be owned anew.

At Montclair State, she played through many of the sections with barely a pause. Yet she was unhurried, giving each variation its own space to occupy—caring for each one while it was present, and then embracing the next. Though she played them as a set, each variation received its own singularity.

The dancers promenaded around her in various formations, or busied themselves behind and beside her. Around midpoint, they broke into two groups and formed archways out of arms and torsos, as if to mimic Bach’s great architecture, meant to pay homage to the glory of God’s creation. But then they quickly pulled apart, because of course, no human can make such a tower. After all, isn’t that part of the point of Bach’s music.

With all the lights and commotion, it would have been impossible for anyone to go to sleep. Certainly back in the day, Count Kaiserling, who commissioned the variations, would have found the dancers disquieting. But would he have been sitting up in his bed, bouncing along with a smile across his face? What is it to have something to look at? Is it a distraction? Or does it help to focus the ear to have the eye occupied? The final iteration of the theme came under a pale yellow light with all the dancers onstage, and busied the mind in ways unlike Bach usually does, like gazing at a sunset after a busy day.

Kurt Gottschalk

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