For some of the more fortunate music organizations, the pandemic-related shutdowns have provided more than an occasion for existential panic. In places like Emmanuel Music, the pandemic has also provided much-needed time to pause and reflect on questions of fundamental artistic identity.
Having embarked on such a process, Emmanuel returned to live performance this season with a renewed commitment to serve as a “living laboratory” for Bach’s music. The ensemble of this composer’s work — in particular the Cantatas — has of course been central to the identity of Emmanuel since its founding in 1970 by the late Craig Smith. But over the decades the organization has also made substantial commitments further afield, from operas by Handel, Mozart and Stravinsky to chamber music by various Romantic composers, including a 51-concert Schubert cycle that spanned seven seasons.
It now seems that Emmanuel is finding his roots in Bach, with programming that is both performative and educational. In the latter category, after convening an online edition of his Bach Institute in 2021 and then postponing a live edition earlier this year due to ongoing pandemic concerns, Emmanuel’s Bach Performance Training Program for Musicians early-career finally reunited in person last month. Among his visiting teachers was Brooklyn-based pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who returned to Emmanuel on Saturday for her debut with Emmanuel Music.
On paper, Dinnerstein would seem a natural fit for Bach’s Emmanuel approach, which features modern instruments and emphasizes the music’s timeless emotional and spiritual relevance. For his part, Dinnerstein made a name for himself in 2007 with a daringly self-produced recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” played on a modern Steinway grand piano. His interpretation of Bach is often decidedly romantic and, in that sense, provides a refreshing counterpoint to the period approaches more generally adopted in today’s early music world.
Saturday evening began with the Keyboard Concerto in G minor (BWV 1058), itself a reworking of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor (BWV 1041). The tempos were fast, and Dinnerstein’s playing projected abundant energy and eloquent musicianship, though not always commensurately clear. Particularly with larger musical forces, the soaring acoustics of the church can make articulating real sonic detail and maintaining overall accuracy particularly difficult, as seems to be the case here.
In terms of clarity of detail, the evening’s final tale of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major (BWV 1053) sounded much better, Dinnerstein’s playing distinguished by its rhythmic buoyancy and flexibility as well as its coloristic imagination. The orchestral playing, led by Emmanuel’s artistic director, Ryan Turner, projected a similar vitality and cohesion.
Between Bach’s two works, Turner conducted three movements of Jennifer Higdon’s whirling “Dance Card,” an accessible and often jubilant work with occasional passing shadows, and Philip Lasser’s wonderfully ingenious arrangement of the chorale prelude from Bach for organ “Embarm dich mein, O Herre Gott” (BWV 721). Throughout the night, Emmanuel’s orchestra played with an enriching combination of freshness and deep familiarity. Bach’s music is deeply ingrained in the collective bloodstream of this ensemble, and at the same time, live musical creation of this nature still seems too important to be taken for granted.
Simone Dinnerstein, piano; Ryan Turner, conductor
At: Emmanuel Church, Saturday evening