The song best defining the song cycle Night that Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt brought to quiet but exquisitely emotive life last night at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville was also the juncture where the largest number of contrasting inspirations intersected.
The tune was Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain, a work sung by Americana stylist Merritt with tasteful, torchy reverence. But the performance wasn’t fashioned after Holiday’s original version, even though the elegantly desperate tone of Merritt’s vocals more than once summoned Lady Day’s divine sadness. Instead, last night’s reading took its cue from Nina Simone’s smokier, more spacious interpretation. While Merritt sang the blues of Holiday, Dinnerstein – one of today’s most heralded classical pianists – played them. The resulting music seemed almost emancipating with each artist stepping ever so modestly away from the sounds and styles audiences most readily associate them with.
The 14-song suite, dubbed Night (and released as a recording of the same name last year), was performed in its entirety last night, forming the bulk of the 90 minute concert. There were a few extras, including Dinnerstein’s solo piano reading of Schumann’s In the Evening that introduced the unhurried yet beautifully rich touch off her playing, and a pair of haunting, fragile-sounding tunes from Merritt’s 2012 album Traveling Alone (Small Talk Relations and Spring). But the program was essentially the Night recording performed in sequence.
There were highlights galore within the suite, from a version of Schubert’s Night and Dreams that concluded with hushed wails on a pair of harmonicas by Merritt that sounded like softened calls from the wilderness, Dinnerstein’s romantic but exploratory runs through The Cohen Variations (a deconstruction of the Leonard Cohen classic Suzanne) and a plaintive reading of the Johnny Nash pop-reggae hit I Can See Clearly Now served by Merritt as a morning prayer that ushered Night into the dawn of a “bright sunshiney day.”
The show stealer, though, was the Merritt original Colors, where lyrics of almost prophetic uncertainly (“What will I know tomorrow that I do not know today?”) were complimented by single note chimes plucked directly from the piano strings like a harp by Dinnerstein. It was one of the many moments that gave Night its very luminous presence.