Pianist Simone Dinnerstein, known for her brilliant interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed in an almost all-Bach program with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music under Artistic Director, Ryan Turner. Saturday night’s event featured Bach keyboard concerti in G Minor and E Major, Dance Card by American composer Jennifer Higdon, and an arrangement of a Bach chorale commissioned by the artist from Philip Lasser.
Bach adapted The G Minor piano concerto BWV 1058 from his A Minor Violin Concerto, written in the then fashionable concerto grosso style—a back and forth the between two groups, one large and one small. Do the G Minor and the E Major examples constitute a back and forth between two elements, one large, one small, in true Baroque style? Well, not exactly. Bach is definitely moving in the direction of the solo concerto with orchestra. The piano is already the main interest, occasionally joining the strings, or just listening, and waiting to come back in.
Dinnerstein projected a rich, vibrant sound in the G Minor, alive and sparkling, even if occasionally ahead of the orchestra. The slow movement almost didn’t need a conductor and could have been carried by the artist’s vivacious momentum. A statuesque artist, she has the power to elicit sound with supple arm gestures and torso strength, so that even the softest playing has quality. This is Bach playing at its best.
Jennifer Higdon’s 2015 Dance Card is an ensemble piece for string orchestra in 5 movements—each playable separately. The Emmanuel Orchestra chose three: Raucous Rumpus (A Fanfare), Breeze Serenade and Jumble Dance, following the fast- slow-fast format of the keyboard concerti. Raucous Rumpus (A Fanfare) is bright, tonal, rhythmical music which the orchestra played with clarity and excitement. One is reminded of another exhilarating composer, Joan Tower, also American, also in love with instrumental sound. Breeze Serenade, the slow movement, with the lovely solo cello part, beautifully performed by Agnes Kim, gets bogged down in the middle: lovely sounds without a home, i.e., structure. The third movement, Jumble Dance, opens with a lyrical bass line, featuring bassist Randall Ziegler. Its rhythmic vitality allows for tighter structural unity than the opening Fanfare or Breeze Serenade.
Dance Card’s orchestration uses the full string dynamic palette, enveloping with rich, gorgeous sound, but it gets lost in its lovely sonority. The composition might be more appropriate as movie music, perhaps describing the open plains of the Midwest. Bring on the narrative. Nonetheless, it was an elegant performance, the orchestra always spinning an atmospheric world of musical color sounds.
Philip Lasser’s arrangement of the chorale, Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott, BWV 721 began the second half. This very appealing, essentially chordal work does not make serious demands on a performer as gifted as Dinnerstein. The Keyboard Concerto in E Major, BWV 1053 followed without a break. Here we encountered the first serious ensemble issues of the evening. Turner’s gestures could have been more assertive, and, as a result, the orchestra had difficulty following the pianist’s fast tempi. Dinnerstein’s clear rhythmic impetus could serve her well in conducting from the piano. Maybe next time she will take on that role.
The obligatory standing ovation capped the concert. Some Boston audiences seem to applaud the fact that the artist is in their air space, and therefore, the performance has got to be outstanding…right? Provincial grade inflation?
A final word: Piano sonority struggles in a church setting. The sound lacks clarity and definition; dynamics lose subtlety. We’d prefer to hear this artist, renowned for her imagination and distinctive playing, in the concert hall.