Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
- ​symphonic, choral, opera, chamber, jazz and period music​ -

Last night in Gananoque, the Thousand Islands Playhouse looked ready for another performance of Into the Woods, currently on a three week run. This is one of the busiest professional theatre companies in Ontario with nine productions in its 2016 summer season extending from May to October. On stage, however, in the middle of a beautiful forest-like set was a grand piano. Tonight, the theatre would be transformed into an intimate concert hall for the third of four concerts in the Studio S series. 

Eric Friesen, the well-known former CBC broadcaster is the curator and host of Studio S. Already in 2016, pianist Luca Burrato and cellist Denis Brott have delivered enthusiastically received performances. Later in August, the world-renowned young Canadian pianist, Jan Lisiecki will return for the final concert in the Studio S series.

On this night however, it was the American pianist Simone Dinnerstein performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations who would mesmerize the near-capacity audience with a stunningly beautiful interpretation of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece.

Dinnerstein’s remarkable musical gift was first noticed by a wide audience when she produced her own recording of this great work in 2007. The recording became the number one album on the classical Billboard chart. It was the New York Times’ cd of the year. Critics praised it as “the most impactful recording of this iconic work since Glenn Gould”. Dinnerstein has been called “one of the most prominent pianists of our times”. She has gained these accolades, not by performing the big romantic piano concertos with major orchestras, but by being true to her own artistry and by finding her voice in Bach, Mozart, Schubert and contemporary music of various genres.

The program opened with a conversation between Dinnerstein and Friesen. Dinnerstein quoted Globe and Mail critic Robert Harris who compared the Goldberg Variations to God looking down on humans and seeing a “sameness”. “All humans are from the same mold”, she said. “Nevertheless, when looking closer, each one has a remarkable uniqueness.”

The concert began with a magical stillness that overcame the audience as Dinnerstein prepared the moment for the first note. Out of the mysterious quiet came inspired beauty. She played the opening aria as if each note were a pearl to be set perfectly in place. The result was an expansive musical line. The pace was perfect and the spaces between notes took on a life of their own. The audience’s spirit was elevated to a world of sheer beauty.

Each subsequent variation brought out fresh emotional responses. Some variations jumped out with brilliant flourishes of virtuosic scales and arpeggios. Others drew in the audience with delicacy and charm. Each was unique. One brought out dance-like playfulness, another joy, and still another an almost jazz-like improvisation. Each had a perfection and distinctiveness in and of itself.

In Variation No. 25, one of only three variations written in a minor key, a profound sadness became unbearably painful. The awkward leaps of wide intervals reinforced its darkness.

The work ended as it began with the original aria on which the variations were based. This time, it was transformed into a sublimely peaceful denouement. As it began I found myself letting out a sigh of relief from the tension and anticipation in each of the previous variations.

As magically inspired as Dinnerstein was on stage at the piano, she was personally humble in meeting with the audience afterwards in the lobby. She talked about her family and her time visiting Canada this week, signed autographs of her cds, and accepted compliments graciously.

Dinnerstein heads back to New York this week to work on the post-production of her latest recording. She also noted that she was heading back quickly in order to see her 14 year old son perform in a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the near future Dinnerstein will be touring with a piano concerto she has commissioned from the foremost American composer, Philip Glass. 

Eric Friesen and Simone Dinnerstein,  ​Photo by  Jan Richards

Review by David Richards
Gananoque July 26, 2016

SIMONE DINNERSTEIN creates beauty out of stillness in a stunning performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations