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Classical Notes

‘Bachpacking’ and the lure of the inventions

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein at one of her school “Bachpacking’’ sessions in New York City. Pamela Yau

Simone Dinnerstein can remember the first time she heard one of Bach’s two-part inventions. She was about 9 years old and attended the Manhattan School of Music every Saturday in its precollege program. One of her classmates played the D minor invention. “I remember being really struck by it — in particular because I had never seen a piece of music where both hands were equally important,” she said recently from her Brooklyn home. “I asked my teacher if I could play it, and he said I couldn’t. Because I wasn’t ready,” she added, laughing.

The inventions have led a curious double life. Bach wrote them to teach students — his own sons among them — how to play music with two independent melodic voices. They are a first encounter with Bach for countless piano students. Yet the inventions — along with their three-voice counterparts, the sinfonias — are also fully formed musical works, though infrequently encountered in concert. Dinnerstein said she could not recall hearing them all played in recital.


These minor miracles of counterpoint are currently front and center for Dinnerstein, who has just recorded the inventions and sinfonias for Sony in beautiful and imaginative readings. She will begin her Feb. 28 recital in Worcester with the inventions, on a program that also includes Bach’s Fifth French Suite and music of Schumann and Beethoven. And they are the focus of an educational program called “Bachpacking” that Dinnerstein has been bringing to schools in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Solomon Mikowsky, Dinnerstein’s teacher, put an emphasis on phrasing when he taught Bach. “As he would say, a ‘parlando’ style, which means a speaking style,” she explained. “We talked a lot about that.” Mikowsky also owned a large record collection, and while working with Dinnerstein on the inventions he would play several versions of them so that she could absorb the choices different performers made. Dinnerstein noted that he always saved the idiosyncratic Glenn Gould for last. “We always laughed, but in admiration, because it was crazy. He always did the exact opposite of all the other recordings.”


In fact, Gould’s eccentric, electric Bach cast a long spell over Dinnerstein as a teenager and young adult, even to the point of inhibiting the development of her own artistic character. Yet she shook it off, as anyone who’s heard her mesmerizing and colorful recording of the Goldberg Variations can attest.

But back to the inventions, which she’s now played live several times. “You have to think about them in a different way when you perform all of them in concert,” she said. “They’re more challenging to listen to than a piece like a partita. There’s something about them that’s almost abstract: They’re not dances, they’re not chorale preludes, they’re just about form. Playing them in concert makes me want to draw out the differences between them . . . to show their diversity. You need to have a range of color, tempo, dynamics, or else the music becomes too monochromatic.”

The “Bachpacking” project — named for the electric keyboard she brings with her to schools — brings her interface with the piece back to its educational roots. With a small group of kids sitting around her on the floor so that they can see her hands, Dinnerstein plays parts of the inventions, asking students to listen to how her two hands work as equal and independent partners. “That is something that’s so foreign to children, to think about music in that way. They know no music that has that in it.”


The reception has been eager and enthusiastic. “When I was in Washington last week, I wasn’t sure how engaged the kids were when I first talked to them. And then I started playing, and I had this feeling that they were getting closer to me. And then I realized that they had gradually stood up and were crowding closer and closer to me, until I couldn’t move my elbows, because they were completely hemmed in against me! It was almost like I had some kind of a lure.”

Bach called the inventions and sinfonias “an honest guide” for lovers of the keyboard on how to correctly play counterpoint. Dinnerstein has thought a lot about the meaning and implications of that phrase.

“I think that he’s being open and clear and straightforward about what he’s showing,” she said. “He didn’t write an essay saying, this is how you would compose for two voices and three voices. He teaches by writing the music. And I think he’s also being humble, in a way. There weren’t any airs to this; he wasn’t being patronizing. It’s just a clear laying out of his ideas. And I think that’s a beautiful way to think about music.”

Shakespeare at 450

To recognize the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Tatyana Dudochkin, of New England Conservatory’s Preparatory School, has organized a wide-ranging evening devoted to his influence on music, which is massive and long-lasting. The Sunday program at Jordan Hall touches down at a number of highlights, including excerpts from Gounod’s and Prokofiev’s settings of “Romeo and Juliet” and Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff.” Somewhat more unusual is the concert’s opening, which the NEC website describes as “NEC president Tony Woodcock impersonating Laurence Olivier impersonating Kenneth Branagh in [a] speech from Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V.’ ”



Kafka and Kurtág in Framingham

Framingham State University presents a rare performance of one of the late 20th century’s masterpieces: György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments” (op. 24). The performance by two local contemporary music stars — soprano Aliana de la Guardia and violinist Gabriela Diaz — will accompany a lecture by Christian Gentry, who teaches music there.

Monday at 7 p.m., Heineman Ecumenical Center; http://www.framingham.edu/arts-and-ideas/movement-and-migration-series/index.html

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.