NEW YORK — Pianist Simone Dinnerstein doesn’t shy away from challenges. Her career is built on them. When her self-financed recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2007 reached No.1 on the Billboard classical music CD sales, her reputation as a fearless pioneer was sealed. Dinnerstein’s indefatigable nature is matched by her pianism. She is a musician who makes every one of her notes sing with ultimate value. In performance, Dinnerstein literally apprehends the score and will not let a single moment slip by.
So, in 2020, when composer Richard Danielpour asked her to perform his new 50-minute piano solo, An American Mosaic, there was never any doubt that Dinnerstein would conquer his score. She has already recorded the work.
On Oct. 12, as part of the Miller Theatre’s pop-up streamed concert series, Dinnerstein performed An American Mosaic in Columbia University’s historic Butler Library. It was a unique digital experience, sometimes deeply affecting and at other times alienating. The scene dictated a sense of isolation and religiosity: a woman alone at her piano — no audience — enveloped by the grandeur of the Neo-classical architecture, with thousands of books peering down on her.
There was also heroism at play. An American Mosaic is a technical and interpretative challenge. The 15-movement cycle is a musical documentary of the pandemic. Its purpose is manifold: It serves as a meditation and elegy on the coronavirus pandemic, an homage to the heroes who served it, and a critique on the times.
The work is structurally complex and does not follow any rule book. Beginning with a prologue based on a monodic theme, four movements called “Consolations” form a piece within the piece. All of these movements share a plaintive theme from the prologue and are Bach-inspired. They are interspersed among a series of dramatically charged portraits dedicated to heroes of the time: doctors and interns, caretakers and research physicians, parents and children, journalists and writers. Another movement, “Prophets & Martyrs,” dedicates itself to the Black lives lost during the pandemic, while “The Invisible Enemy” speaks to the virus itself. With rancor, Danielpour makes a statement on the Trump administration in “The Visible Memory.”
The encyclopedic thematics of An American Mosaic are as extensive as the stylistic canvas and musical forms. The Bach-inspired movements contain a two-part invention (“Second Consolation”), a three-part fugue (“Third Consolation”), and a four-part chorale (“Fourth Consolation”).
The homages to members of society are even more complex, with themes, moods, and styles moving at a defiant pace, most times within a movement itself. The styles are bedded on the traditions of American piano music. Echoes of Copland drift in and out of French impressionism. Shards of Neo-classicism ruffle against shreds of Chavez.
Nothing in the score is stationary. Nothing rests. Dualities juxtapose at break-neck speed. The deep sense of the rhetorical pervades. Take, for instance, the movement “Journalists, Poets, and Writers.” It begins with frenetic, chaotic ostinato-like figures that subside into a sudden calm, then back to the energy.
Yes, An American Mosaic is quixotic. To give justice to the piece, the pianist must not only quickly pivot from treatment to treatment but also extract the essence of every emotion and portrait of humanity Danielpour is seeking to communicate. Its hard to imagine many pianists who could rise to the challenges of this work
Sure, Dinnerstein’s affinity for Bach serves her well, but in An American Mosaic, she brings emotional, full-bodied drama to the work without sacrificing any of the detail of the considerable technical demands. Somehow, she manages to piece together all the myriad irregularities of Danielpour’s mosaic fragments to create a cogent experience of the heart and mind. Somehow, she finds an inner strength to complete the titanic work. But above all, Dinnerstein somehow manages to take every moment, lift it off the ground, and carry us away.