Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt
Merkin Concert Hall
March 21, 2013
NEW YORK – Over the years, Sony Classical has released many “classical crossover” albums: some inspired, some tepid, some awful. The ones that don’t work tend to push “fish out of water” collaborations – say, fusty divas singing show tunes – without an organic motivation for the music making. The better recordings may still accentuate contrasting styles and approaches; but they also document a meeting of musical minds and a search for common ground.
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein, a star in the classical world, and folk singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tift Merritt come from very different backgrounds: one trained at Juilliard, the other learned to play by ear. And it would be wishful thinking to say that the music they make separately is a natural fit together. But on their newly released Sony CD Night, and onstage together at Merkin Hall, they communicated so intently to each other that the listener couldn’t help but be captivated by their attempts to bridge aesthetic gaps.
Thus, while it is at first surprising to hear Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas interpreted with emotive belting by Merritt, one can readily ascertain how she connects the dots between this baroque opera aria and American folk songs about love, loss, and impending death. For example, “Oh Death” and “Death Letter Blues” mine many of the same fears and other emotional terrain. (There are musical connections too: Alex Ross has written about the affinities between Baroque lamento bass and chaconne and traditional blues songs. He even demonstrates them on YouTube.) Merritt finds a way in to classical repertoire by exploring these connections. She even gets us listen afresh to pieces like “Night and Dreams,” an English translation of Schubert’s “Nacht und Traume,” by presenting it as a campfire ballad, even including a rustic touch of harmonica. She approached Fauré’s “Aprés un Reve,” in French, as if she were a cabaret chanteuse. Although it was pitched too low for her voice (maybe they’ll transpose it up as the tour continues), her rendition was charming. The artists also gave each other space to “do their thing.” Dinnerstein played Bach dance pieces gloriously while Merritt interspersed the collaborative pieces with scintillating renditions of works from her own catalog.
Dinnerstein gave pop music a go by accompanying Merritt on a couple of the folksinger’s songs, as well as numbers written for the duo by Brad Mehldau and Patty Griffin, and on the set’s closing number, the breezy staple “I Can See Clearly Now.” While occasionally Dinnerstein seemed a bit tentative delving into pop styles when unscripted, a new solo piano composition she had recently commissioned demonstrated her interest in, and indeed passion for, popular music. The Cohen Variations, composed by Daniel Felsenfeld and based on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” was a supple meditation on an iconic pop song. Like Christopher O’Riley’s arrangements of songs by folksinger Nick Drake, Cohen Variations is eminently pianistic and also expands the harmonic palette of its original with added note and cluster chords. Where O’Riley’s arrangements usually maintain the song structure, Felsenfeld took the source material as a point of departure, elaborating from there. Though less virtuosic, it didn’t seem out of place alongside the Schumann that Dinnerstein played elsewhere on the set.
Another winning selection from the Dinnerstein/Merritt collaboration was their rendition of the traditional folksong “I Gave my Love an Apple.” Here Dinnerstein played inside the piano, evoking dulcimer playing as a hat tip to Appalachian music making. One hopes that imaginative crossover ideas may continue to populate future collaborations between these two talented artists.
Schumann: In the Evening from Fantasiestucke
*Tift Merritt: Only in Songs
*Schubert: Night and Dreams
*Purcell: Dido’s Lament
*Holiday: Don’t Explain
*Mehldau: I shall Weep
*Wayfaring Stranger (traditional)
Tift Merritt: Small Talk Relations
Tift Merritt: Spring
*Bach: Prelude in B minor
Bach: Allemande and Courante from French Suite No. 5 in G Major
*Tift Merritt: Still Not Home
*I will give my love an apple (traditional)
*Tift Merritt: Colors
*Daniel Felsenfeld: The Cohen Variations
*Patty Griffin: Night
*Tift Merritt: Feel of the World
*Nash: I can see clearly
Fauré: Aprés un Reve
*Included on the album Night (Sony Classical)