In April, Grammy-winning classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein was quarantined at her home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope when the phone rang. On the line was another titan of contemporary classic music, the Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour.
Danielpour had been approached by the Oregon Bach Festival to write an original piece of music inspired by the pandemic, and he had Dinnerstein in mind to perform it. Although Dinnerstein and Danielpour both performed at the 2018 Oregon Bach Festival, the two musicians had never met.
“He reached out to me because he had been listening to a lot of my recordings during this period and finding them helpful with his state of mind,” the pianist tells me over the phone from her home. “I’d heard of Richard and heard some of his music, but I’d never been in contact, so it was unexpected to get this phone call from him,” she says.
The resulting piece of music, An American Mosaic, is set to premiere in a prerecorded, free streaming performance from Dinnerstein Dec. 6. The roughly 50-minute piece, a series of piano miniatures, is tied together by a larger architecture of fugues and chorales, with an epilogue, a prologue and various interludes along the way.
Each movement evokes groups of people directly affected by the pandemic, primarily frontline workers, with titles like: “Caretakers and Research Physicians,” “Journalists, Poets and Writers” and “Doctors and Interns,” among others. The piece also has a movement dedicated to Black Lives Matter in the style of a spiritual.
Through the music, Danielpour is “exploring the current political situation and American society,” Dinnerstein says. “It’s a piece that has a really strong narrative quality to it.”
After the initial phone call, Dinnerstein and Danielpour began to collaborate using Apple’s FaceTime — Dinnerstein in New York and Danielpour from his home in L.A.
Danielpour entered the project with a pretty clear conception in his head. “He’s a bit different from any other composer that I’ve ever worked with,” Dinnerstein says. “He seems to have a really solid idea of what he wants before puts pen to paper. He maps out the whole piece.”
Dinnerstein continues, “I almost feel a sense that music for Richard is a very specific language. The notes mean something quite specific to him. It’s one thing to work on Schubert, who’s part of our ear. It doesn’t take much to know what you want it to sound like. But with Richard, I wasn’t familiar with his language.”
When approaching a piece of music, Dinnerstein says she likes to hear something lyrical and poetic, but also something that’s interestingly thought through: music that has layers to it and that rewards deep listening. “I don’t tend to go for music that has a quick gratification about it,” Dinnerstein says.
Like the rest of the performing arts industry, the 2020 OBF was scuttled by the pandemic. Plans are underway to bring back a modified version of the festival in 2021, according to Jonathan Eifert of Gold Sound Media, a marketing agency representing the festival.
“The overarching goal for OBF 2021 planning is to create a specific, purposeful and highly flexible schedule that keeps everyone safe, confident and healthy, while bringing much-needed and much-desired live performance back to our community,” the festival says in a statement.
During the live-music shutdown, Dinnerstein has performed a few prerecorded streamed shows, and even one socially-distanced concert with the audience in masks — an emotional experience for the performer. “I actually kind of lost it onstage,” Dinnerstein says. “It was a lot to take in.”
Dinnerstein won’t change her approach to American Mosaic just because the performance is virtual, she says, and once restrictions are lifted, she expects the piece to be performed frequently in person.
“This is a piece of music that has so much in it,” she continues, “and it’s so affecting. My instinct is when people start having real live concerts this piece will be performed a lot. It’s like a tribute and a memory to this period,” she says. “I think that people are going to need to process what’s happened. This music has been a way to do that.”
An American Mosaic premieres 2 pm Sunday, Dec. 6 in a prerecorded streamed performance on the Oregon Bach Festival website, OregonBachFestival.org; FREE.