Dinnerstein and a Far Cry turn Bach and Glass into Pleasant Companions

A Far Cry, photographed in South Boston, MA, USA on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. The ensemble performs conductorless and some stand while performing. They recently performed at the Soka Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun)

Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo got the jump on the local classical music season Friday night with an opening that featured the Boston-based string ensemble A Far Cry and American pianist Simone Dinnerstein. It was good to be indoors again after the summer concert slate, especially in this excellent acoustical space (still underappreciated). It was also stimulating to have an artistically intriguing program on offer.

The Birth of a Collaboration

The idea to compose Concerto No. 3 first germinated when Simone Dinnerstein and Phillip Glass met for breakfast in his garden and found that they shared a strong interest in the music of Bach and its impact on the world today. Glass, having come to know her work over the years, offered to write a piece for her, and Dinnerstein proposed that it be a concerto for piano and strings, to be paired with one of Bach’s own. She explains, “There are almost no concertos written for piano and strings since Bach’s time. The pairing of the Bach concerto with Philip’s own composition creates myriad strands of connectivity, enabling the listener to create bridges between the old and the new.”

Glass finished Piano Concerto No.3 in 2017 as a response to hearing Dinnerstein play at the Glenn Gould Prize concert in Ottawa the previous year. He explains in the album’s liner notes, “I can say that Bach’s music was not consciously in my mind as I composed this new concerto, but in a way it’s unavoidable. …[W]hile this piece itself is not directly influenced by Bach, his music is by definition a part of mine.”

That program paired the music of Philip Glass, including a new piano concerto written for Dinnerstein, with Bach. Programming is not a science, nor is it as hard as many performers seem to make it. Sometimes, it’s good enough to slam two pieces or composers against one another and see what sparks fly. The pieces or composers don’t necessarily have to have a lot in common, or uncommon. They just have to open up your ears to the other music on the program, mission accomplished here.

A Far Cry, 16 members at this performance, is a conductorless, democratically governed ensemble, founded in 2007. The violins and violas play standing up, and everyone trades parts and positions within their sections. The physicality of the group when it plays (they move with the music) is attractive — not overdone or distracting, but an aid to the ear.

Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 3, composed in 2017, is meditative and disarmingly sumptuous. Without losing his own signature style, the composer seems to be channeling the nocturnal Chopin at times, and the more subdued pages of Rachmaninoff at others. The piano solo is not virtuosic in any way, and collaborates with the strings rather than opposes. Tempos are moderate to slow throughout. Blocks of music come and go and return, repeated as if just to savor them again. At 34 minutes, the piece felt a little too long to this listener, but that could have been because it was played at the end of the evening. There wasn’t a moment without beauty in it. 

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Dinnerstein is not the most demonstrative pianist, in anything she does. But she had the measure of the piece, and gave it a tolling regularity and breadth. Her several cadenzas were ample, never forced or rushed, but breathing.

Before the concerto, she played Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058. She sat with her back to the audience, with the lid off the Steinway grand, the strings arranged in a half circle around her. It was a vigorous and at the same time lyrical performance, Dinnerstein warmly turning Bach’s lines into singing melody. At the same time, these keyboard concertos, meant to be played for the most part on harpsichord, don’t really sound well when performed on a modern piano with strings. There’s something too milky about the texture. The bass lines thud and throb, reiterated by basses, cellos and piano together. A harpsichord adds bite to the bass lines.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 opened the concert, a suitable overture in this robust reading. One realized the rhythmic and contrapuntal vitality of the piece — it’s got the get-up and go of a sports car — with these players digging in, a lot of torque from the lower strings, who led some gritty crescendos. The Soka acoustics proved just a little too lively to vividly capture all of the hot-potato handoffs in this piece, but there wasn’t much harm.

Glass’s Symphony No. 3, for strings, rounded out the agenda. In four movements and 26 minutes in length, the piece is strong and cogent, anchored by the angular metrical games of movements two and four and highlighted by a stunning and slow third movement that gradually mounts from a repeated pattern in the lower strings to ecstatic solo violins circling above, like eagles in stratospheric flight. There were a couple of spots that I thought would have benefited from the presence of a conductor (to focus the ensemble), but overall A Far Cry gave it a compelling and committed reading. This symphony should be performed more widely.

The only real slip of the evening came at the start. After a brief presentation giving accolades to outgoing general manager David Palmer and welcoming new general manager Renee Bodie, KUSC’s John Van Driel sat down with Dinnerstein and two members of A Far Cry for an interview that went on and on. The natives grew restless.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.