Simone Dinnerstein: Variations on Music Stardom

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein piano classical music 7274686 portrait

For years, critics considered Glenn Gould's interpretation of "The Goldberg Variations" by Johann Sebastian Bach to be the gold standard. Now, there's a new contender. With Serena Altschul, we take note:

Simone Dinnerstein has played some of the world's biggest stages, from London to New York. She's released two critically acclaimed, number one albums.

Quite an accomplishment for a 38-year-old pianist who not that long ago found the only way she could play Carnegie Hall was to pay for it herself.

"I feel incredibly lucky," she said. "I really am having the career at the moment that I dream about having when I was a kid. It's kind of hard to realize that it's actually happening."

But it's been a highly unusual road to stardom.

Her father, Simon, an artist, and mother, Renee, didn't give her lessons until she was seven, a late start by classical music standards.

"I remember her saying to me that, 'When I grow up, I want to be a solo pianist, and I want to play on the New York stage,'" Renee said. "And I remember thinking, 'Oh, my daughter is in for so much pain.'"

Mom was right. Long hours of practicing isolated Dinnerstein from friends and often left her lonely.

"I very much identified myself as being a musician and that was a very important part of my personality

But while music can isolate, it can also inspire. And at 13, Dinnerstein discovered the legendary interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach, Glenn Gould, and his recording of the "Goldberg Variations."

It was thought to have been written as a lullaby by Bach and first performed by German composer Johann Goldberg.

"I was at a friend's house, and he put that recording on and it just stopped me in my tracks," Simone said. "I couldn't believe how great it was."

After attempting it to play it, Dinnerstein set the piece aside: "I didn't think I could play it. Not only did I think I wouldn't be able to play it physically, but I just felt that I would not have anything worth saying that Glenn Gould had not already said."

Dinnerstein went on to study at Juilliard, but shocked her family and friends by dropping out.

Determined to find her own voice, she headed to London to study … AND be with her boyfriend, Jeremy Greensmith.

There she became an accomplished pianist, but - try as she might - never a star. Eventually, she packed it in and returned to Juilliard and Brooklyn with Jeremy, who became her husband. They started a family, while she gave piano lessons and played small concerts wherever she could.

She played in retirement homes, and a prison. She didn't play the "Goldberg Variations," but Bach's music was never far from her mind.

Feeling washed-up as a musician at 30, she decided to make her own attempt to master the piece she had fallen in love with as a child.

What does she love about it most?

"It's almost not like a piece of music," Simone said. "It's almost like a meditation. You are really taken to a different place, and it's actually the same feeling play it. It took me a while to perform it well. It was a really hard piece."

So Dinnerstein scraped together $15,000 from friends and family to record her performance.

The first tracks soon leaked out on the Internet, and caused a flurry of excitement in the music world.

David Patrick Stearns, music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer who was at the recording sessions, said, "I thought it was really gutsy and really cool.

"Her Goldbergs really take you on a journey, and it's an emotional journey," he said. "The most important thing is she takes you on her journey. It's all hers."

With the recording in hand, Dinnerstein had her own ideas about what to do next.

Rather than audition for a record label, she decided to capitalize on her buzz by playing the "Goldberg Variations" live for critics. It was all-or-nothing.

She rented a recital space at Carnegie Hall to play the concert of her life. "I was very nervous for that concert. It was a huge concert for me."

It was a smash.

Soon, major labels were clamoring to release her record. It came out August 28, 2007.

Dinnerstein was on National Public Radio in New York that day, when something incredible happened:
Her album landed at number four on the Amazon charts - and not just for classical recordings.

She described it as "crazy."

"It was like, Bruce Springsteen and then the 'Goldberg Variations'!" she laughed. "Yeah, it was a really great day."

By the end of the week, it was number one on the charts. Concert requests poured in, and by year's end, Dinnerstein's record was on numerous prestigious top ten lists. Even Oprah took notice.

"I kind of couldn't believe it, I really couldn't," said Stearns. "I don't know how they got that disc to do what it did. I really don't. But I was glad to see that it happened."

And it happened again a year later, with a number one record of a live concert in Berlin.

Now, Dinnerstein's hoping that her new album - out this past week - will also top the charts.

"Are you kind of a local celebrity here?" asked Altschul.

"I guess. A little bit."

"I think you are. You're being modest," said Altschul.

"There's something about it that's a bit of a fairy tale," Simone said. "And so it doesn't feel quite real in a way that this is happening."

And while Dinnerstein's finally a star, her life in Brooklyn hasn't changed too much. She regularly goes back to her old elementary school, where her husband is a teacher, to perform for her son's class.

For Simone Dinnerstein, the dream she had all those years ago has come true at last.

And like the song says, "She did it her way."

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