For all of our talk of virtuosity, it can be easy to forget the role of the instrument itself in baroque and classical music. This is especially true for the keyboard, which has seen dramatic changes in technology over the centuries. While the astonishing works of J. S. Bach are still standard today, the keyboard instruments of Bach’s time generally are not, unless we are attending a specialized performance of “early music.”
We are now far more accustomed to hearing works for harpsichord performed on a modern piano than the instruments of Bach’s own period. Musicians, however, very well know the difference between the resonating dynamics of today’s concert grand and the gentle, plucking tones of the harpsichord of Bach’s day. The question is how to interpret these distinctions when transposing a famous composition from one instrument to another.
Pianoforte, from “soft” to “loud”—the modern piano has a far greater range than the harpsichord and can quickly overpower Bach’s intimate phrasing. The great twentieth-century performers of Bach—even Glenn Gould in his famous 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—treated the piano like a brighter but still baroque instrument. The playing was fast and even, mechanical and at times maniacal yet ultimately restrained.
When the pianist Simone Dinnerstein went to record her own Goldberg a little more than a decade ago, she opened the well-known doors of Bach’s Wunderkammer to new light and air. She employed the piano’s dynamic range to add new color to Bach’s shimmering silver and gold. Her best-selling interpretation added both breath and breadth to the piece we thought we knew so well.
A few years ago, Dinnerstein reached out to the choreographer Pam Tanowitz to set Goldberg to dance. This would not be the first Goldbergian ballet—Jerome Robbins premiered his own famous version in 1971—but it was the first set to Dinnerstein’s romantic interpretation.
This week through Sunday the two are presenting their shared vision at The Joyce Theater, with Dinnerstein and the dancers of Pam Tanowitz Dance together on stage.Inspired by Merce Cunningham’s modern sense for shape and construction, Tanowitz set about undoing the baroque assumptions of choreographing Bach, which we see even in Robbins, and starting anew with Dinnerstein’s interpretation.
The result places not just the player, but also the piano, at the center of the action, with the dancers spinning around, sitting beside, and at times even crawling under the instrument. Tanowitz’s dance is not merely a visualization of the music. It is the embodiment of the pianist playing the music.
As Dinnerstein begins, the stage starts in darkness. Slowly her dancing fingers glow in spotlight. As the dancers enter the stage, bobbing in unison, they move like the knuckles of the hand, their bare feet patting the floor like fingertips on the keyboard.
A challenge of choreographing a complete Goldberg is to recast and renew its many “variations” for over an hour of performance time. Here Tanowitz manages to be inventive without too much distraction or cleverness. Her dancers work as hard and as long as Dinnerstein’s fingers do. Lindsey Jones must be singled out as an accomplished soloist in one particularly challenging section.
The great team of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung should also be thanked for their simple chromatic costumes. As the lighting and visual designer, Davison Scandrett finally does more with light angles than I thought possible. These subtle effects complete the show Without changing the color of light, Scandrett signals the different temperatures of Bach’s variations by varying the light and shadow on the face and body.
Whether it be the overhead summer sun or an oblique light of winter, the music of Bach contains every time and every season. Through this kaleidoscope of sound and movement, Dinnerstein and Tanowitz together give new form to Bach’s astonishing composition and put it out there for us all to see, the piano and pianist front and center.