AN INTIMATE NIGHT OF BACH WITH THE BOULDER PHIL

Featuring guest conductor/pianist Simone Dinnerstein and soloists

By Izzy Fincher Nov. 15 at 12:45 a.m.

Bach’s expressive, animated melodies poured out of my Bluetooth speakers.

Meanwhile, on Vimeo, musicians played for an empty airport hangar, the only audience a pair of Beechcraft airplanes and a few socially-distanced recording engineers. 

The Boulder Phil launched their second online concert of 2020–21, “The Beauty of Bach,” last night (Nov. 14). The concert, which was pre-recorded at Boulder’s Municipal Airport, featured conductor/pianist Simone Dinnerstein, flutist Christina Jennings and violinist Charles Wetherbee.

Simone Dinnerstein leads the Boulder Phil in Bach (screenshot)

Throughout “The Beauty of Bach,” Dinnerstein shined both as conductor and pianist. Her reputation as a Bach interpreter, which began with her 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations, is certainly deserved. Her interpretations of Bach are flowing, evocative and lyrical, as she draws out beautiful melodies from Bach’s dense contrapuntal texture. 

“I think that Bach was somebody who was really interested in the sonorities of different instruments,” Dinnerstein said to conductor Michael Butterman in a pre-concert interview. “When I am playing Bach on the piano, I think about lots of other instruments, and in particular, I think a lot about the voice. How would somebody sing a line? Where would they breathe?

“I think about anything besides hammers hitting strings.”

The pre-recorded format enhanced the visuals of Dinnerstein’s performance. The opening wide shot showed the typical audience perspective of a pianist-conductor, Dinnerstein’s back as she faced the orchestra, her facial expressions and at times her hands hidden from view.

Later, alternate camera angles, including close-ups and front-facing shots, showed her expressiveness in a completely new way, from the perspective of the other musicians and Dinnerstein herself. Her facial expressions showed her intense passion for the music—sometimes her eyes even appeared to be shining with emotion.

Dinnerstein conducting from the piano (screenshot)

This perspective also highlighted her skill as a conductor, allowing the audience to see her interactions from the perspective of the Boulder Phil musicians. Using a skillful combination of subtle eye cues and whole body gestures, Dinnerstein conveyed her musical intentions clearly and powerfully, despite the black face mask obscuring her facial expressions. 

Dinnerstein played and conducted at her best when collaborating with flutist Jennings for the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. This is not surprising, considering Dinnerstein and Jennings have played this program together before, the last time in February at Columbia University, before the first COVID-19 shutdown. According to Jennings, bringing this Bach program back for the Boulder Phil has been both “eerie and wonderful.”

“(The Orchestral Suite) starts with the flute rather hidden,” Jennings said in her interview with Butterman. “Then the flute emerges more and more and becomes more prominent. I love the arrangement that we have created together with different timbres, different parts of the orchestra featured in different movements (and) a rousing finish.” 

Flutist Christina Jennings (screenshot)

Jennings’ intentions for the Orchestral Suite certainly came through. At the beginning, she blended impeccably with the orchestra, nearly inaudible above the strings, before emerging from the texture with an elegant tone and an air of self-assurance. Her expertly executed trills floated above the entire orchestral texture, naturally melting into a sensitive vibrato. Despite the lightness of touch stylistically, Jennings was still able to dominate musically, her projection almost overpowering the rest of the orchestra and even Dinnerstein at times. 

The final piece of the night, the Brandenburg Concerto would have received a standing ovation, if there had been a live audience. The vivacious melodies paired with Dinnerstein’s pyrotechnic cadenzas were impressive, creating almost palpable excitement through the screen. 

The second “Allegro,” the concerto’s last movement, featured bouncy, energetic melodies on the flute and strings, underpinned by flowing, ostentatious scales on the piano. The gigue-like feel from continuous triplet eighth notes inspired vigorous head-nodding, foot-tapping and perhaps even a bit of clapping and dancing (now acceptable outside of the concert hall).

The Boulder Phil and Jennings, under Dinnerstein’s guidance, captured both the grandeur and intimate expressiveness of Bach’s music. Even with only a computer screen, Bluetooth speaker and unreliable Wi-Fi, “The Beauty of Bach” delivered as promised: a much-needed, beautiful musical experience. 

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