a little night music

night 1

tift merritt and simone dinnerstein. photo by lisa-marie mazzucco.

The design of the alliance fascinates before you hear a single note.

Representing one musical community is Simone Dinnerstein, an internationally acclaimed classical pianist considered one of the foremost interpreters of Johann Sebestian Bach of her generation. From another musical terrain altogether is Tift Merritt, a veteran from a decades-old alt-country movement who has since become regarded as an Americana songwriter of intense personal reflection.

How did they happen to cross paths? A better question might be when: Nighttime.

On their 2013 recording Night, Dinnerstein and Merritt create a genre-free, nocturnally themed song cycle. The song sources are purposely scattered. It places Merritt originals alongside highly adapted works by such varied artists as Franz Schubert, Billie Holiday, Henry Purcell, Patty Griffin, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and even Dinnerstein’s beloved Bach. Musically, however, the performances are strictly duets with Dinnerstein on piano and Merritt on guitar, vocals and, during a version of Schubert’s Night and Dreams, gorgeously plaintive harmonica.

“The nice thing about this collaboration was that it really was a long process,” Merritt said. “It’s something we first began maybe three years ago. By the time we were in the very beautiful theatre where we recorded it (The American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York), we had been able to have enough time to dig into where our worlds really were at. I don’t think that was something we could do quickly or superficially. I practiced the program so much and rehearsed it so much in the beginning. Now, performing it again is like going back to a muscle I didn’t know I had and getting to flex it.”

“I think this project has really pushed me a lot,” added Dinnerstein. “It’s definitely made me think differently about the classical repertoire that I’m playing. Just the fact that I took so many liberties from the classical music that we interpreted and yet it all felt so right together has made me think that I could definitely push myself to greater risks with the repertoire I’m playing in my normal recitals.”

Having been introduced to each other by Gramophone magazine, Dinnerstein and Merritt discovered an immediate professional and personal bond. Still, finding the common musical ground so beautifully displayed on Night required each to take several steps outside of their artistic comfort zones.

“Tift is really an intense and serious musician,” Dinnserstein said. ”I’ve learned a lot from working with her. She’s extremely dedicated in terms of how she rehearses, and then the way that she performs is particularly striking to me. She’s almost the musical equivalent of a Method actor in that she really becomes the music during the concert. Afterwards she is just so emotional from the performance, which is completely understandable because she puts so much into it. I think that people in the audience feel the energy that comes from her during the concert. Certainly, I do.”

“It was such a scary leap of faith for me to play with a world class musician like Simone who is so proficient in the language of the music,” Merritt said. “It really was terrifying at first. But in the end, having held my own, it gives me some confidence. It’s the kind of thing where when you begin taking risks, you are able to take more risks and build on that until it becomes so much more rewarding than scary. I think in my own work, I’m now able to bring that ability to risk more. But I’m also able to appreciate my own sort of sweet spot and why I do what I do having ventured into all of these other places.”

“Night”: An Evening with Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt.  8 p.m., Feb. 22 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $30. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

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