This article was originally published in the March 2018 Princeton Echo.
On a sunny, mid-winter afternoon, 60 or so people gather in the high-ceilinged auditorium of Bristol Chapel on the campus of Westminster Choir College. The lighting is mostly natural, slightly augmented by hidden fixtures around the trimmed ceiling. Branches sway gently outside tall windows. Comfortably shod feet tread hardwood floors.
For those here to observe, a masterclass is something of a come-as-you-are. Audience members come and go during the two-hour session. The space may be wide open, but the spirit of intimacy is palpable. Even Simone Dinnerstein, the acclaimed pianist, who will offer advice to four young performers, is dressed casually in dark, loose-fitting shirt and slacks. A video camera sits unobtrusively on a tripod, streaming the event, to be archived in two parts on the Facebook page of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
The masterclass is part of the PSO’s “BRAVO” educational outreach program, developed in conjunction with the Westminster Conservatory of Music. Dinnerstein is scheduled to appear with the orchestra the following afternoon, as soloist in music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Philip Glass (his Piano Concerto No. 3, a PSO co-commission).
Marc Uys, the orchestra’s executive director, and its music director, Rossen Milanov, provide some introductory remarks. Then Dinnerstein, soon to be listening attentively with a score in her lap, addresses the audience. She explains that the event will be conducted in “normal masterclass style.” Each student will play a prepared piece of music all the way through, and then she will come up and talk to them about it and offer a few insights. Before taking her seat, she summons the “first victim.”
Richmond Denzel Garrick takes the stage. Garrick, a 22-year-old senior at Westminster Choir College, is already a veteran of a number of recitals and competitions. He launches into Frederic Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61 — a very ambitious piece, it turns out, possibly the most complicated of the afternoon. He does a respectable job with it, and once the audience applause subsides, Dinnerstein takes her place next to him.
The lesson begins somewhat Socratically. She asks broader questions about Garrick’s experience with the music and how he might describe it. Gradually, the questions become more specific. They home in on areas that might be strengthened by a more focused approach. Then she begins to offer suggestions. The pulse of the work becomes more defined as Dinnerstein directs Garrick’s attention to the dance aspect of the polonaise.
She encourages “more attentive listening and reactive playing.” At certain junctures, she takes over at the keyboard to illustrate. On these occasions, when she takes the bench herself to demonstrate a particular point, it becomes apparent what a certain interpretation has been missing.
Dinnerstein speaks gently and directly. When she hears something she likes, she offers positive reinforcement through comments like “Beautiful” or “That’s really nice.” She couches her instruction in non-threatening terms, often leading into a piece of advice with “Maybe you can try this…” Even a lay person can follow the thread, and by the time a student leaves the stage the results are evident.
The second subject is Joanna Hou, nine years old and a fourth-grader at Princeton Charter School. Already she has performed at Carnegie Hall and been awarded a piano scholarship from Westminster Conservatory. Hou’s feet barely touch the floor, let alone reach the pedals, yet she dispatches a brief rondo from a sonatina by Anton Diabelli with elan, managing to control the dynamics by modulating the force of her attack.
Everyone is suitably impressed, and when the applause subsides, Dinnerstein has her play through the piece again. “I don’t think I have a lot to say to you, actually,” she says. This brings a chuckle from the audience, but then she begins to probe. She asks what else Hou is studying, what she practices, who she listens to at home, what kinds of music? Then she offers advice on how she might listen in ways that would be of benefit to her own playing.
What comes across here and with her work with Garrick and Alexa Majana — a 20 year-old Westminster Choir College junior, with whom Dinnerstein works on a movement from Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 101 — is just how easy it is for interpretation to calcify with repetition. She tells Hou to try to experiment with different kinds of articulation when practicing, and to try to emulate the sounds of other instruments or singers she might encounter in the music she has been listening to. One begins to understand how important it is to try other approaches, not just to find what works, but in order to keep everything fresh.
The last pianist, 15-year-old Alexander Suponya, a 10th grader at East Brunswick High School, plays Enrique Granados’ achingly poetic “Quejas, o la maja y el ruisenor” (The Maiden and the Nightingale). Dinnerstein emphasizes the fantasy of the piece, but she also guides him to a more faithful emulation of birdsong.
When the class is over, Dinnerstein seems friendly and serene. “I try to think about what might be helpful for a particular person, because everybody’s different,” she says. “A nine-year-old is always going to have different issues than a 22-year-old.” Dinnerstein herself, following in the footsteps of her mother, has taught since the age of 15.
“Masterclasses are a way for a student to get a taste of working with a particular musician, and it’s good for the audience,” she says. “It just gives you a window into that experience. An ideal circumstance is to have a lesson, because only having a half an hour to talk about something really limits it, but I try to give something that would be some kind of concrete idea that they could then try to apply to something else when they go home.”
The young artists she has worked with today intend to do so. Hou says she plans to follow her advice of trying different articulations. Garrick, who has also participated in masterclasses overseen by pianists Awadagin Pratt and Thomas Otten, will work on the authenticity of his polonaise, on his sense of objectivity, and on his ability to maintain a sense of line, in order to better reveal the music’s architecture.
“I will definitely have to work on those things that she mentioned,” he says. “Sometimes it is based on what you feel, but you also obviously have to keep to the music. I usually come out of these things feeling like I have a lot more insight and am more intelligent — artistically intelligent — because I feel like they are so musical, these pianists. It’s just a great opportunity to be able to have a class with Ms. Dinnerstein.”
Those in the audience find it equally rewarding. Rachel and John Salapatas, PSO subscribers, attend the organization’s masterclasses whenever they can.
“I find it fascinating to see what professionals are going to do,” says Rachel Salapatas. “Just here we saw a huge difference of a 22-year-old versus a 9-year-old. And yet she’s really good at adapting to the two different levels.”
John Salapatas concurs. “She’s an extraordinary teacher and able to articulate at either level and talk to them at their level, so they understand it,” he says. “What’s enjoyable about these performances is the wonderful music that comes out of little hands or big hands. You come away with a different impression each time. It’s really extraordinary and very entertaining.”
The history of the masterclass, as with so many other aspects of piano history, can be traced back to Franz Liszt. Liszt, one of the most extraordinary pianists who ever lived, and one of the most innovative, conducted classes beginning in the mid-1850s.
PSO executive director Marc Uys reflects on what makes the PSO masterclasses differ from those at many institutions. “We’re making an effort to make it accessible to the public,” he says. “We’re trying to make it a community opportunity for participation, especially in doing the range of ages of students that we try to have. You know, it’s not just one age bracket. To me, that’s not only a nice opportunity, if you’re 12 instead of 20, but it’s also more interesting for the audience, because you get to see the teacher interact with musicians at different levels, so they’re talking about very different things. Otherwise it can be two hours of stuff that maybe could be above your head musically. When you see someone working with a less advanced student, it’s a lot easier to hear what they’re talking about.”
The PSO masterclasses are free and open to the public, though reservations are required. There are two more such events coming up this season, with cellist Joshua Roman on Saturday, March 17, and violinist Ilya Kaler on Saturday, May 19. Both will appear at Westminster’s Hillman Performance Hall the day prior to their performances with the PSO. The application deadline has passed for participants in the cello masterclass, but student violinists may still apply for May. More information is available at www.princetonsymphony.org.
An unrelated masterclass series is offered by the Princeton University Department of Music. Visiting artists this spring will include pianist Jonathan Biss on Wednesday, March 7, and cellist David Finckel on Sunday, April 22. University masterclasses are held at Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall (Lin, Mann, and Finckel) and Lee Rehearsal Room in the Lewis Arts complex (Biss). A complete calendar of events may be found online at music.princeton.edu.