Simone Dinnerstein

When classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein became pregnant more than six years ago, she decided to use the nine months of her term to learn a storied piece she had never before felt ready to play: Bach

When classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein became pregnant more than six years ago, she decided to use the nine months of her term to learn a storied piece she had never before felt ready to play: Bach's Goldberg Variations, one of the masterworks for keyboard.

It was no coincidence that Dinnerstein decided on this particular piece to parallel the journey of her first pregnancy. "The Goldberg Variations was always very special to me," she says. "I first heard it when I was 13 and it made a profound impression. I would go back to it a lot over the years because it always gave me a sense of calm. It always made me feel centered."

The composition's ability to ease her mind was central to her desire to tackle it in the first place. Dinnerstein had "so many different emotions about being pregnant" with her first child: "excitement and anxiety. I was turning into an adult, and this is a piece I had never felt mature enough to play. Knowing I was about to become a mother and thinking about those responsibilities connected me to feeling finally ready to learn it."

Dinnerstein gave birth to her son in December 2001; the following year, she experienced a different kind of birth, when she started performing the Goldberg Variations for the first time. "My life changed in so many ways after my son was born -- I will forever feel a strong link between him and this piece," she says.

After spending almost three years giving concerts of the Variations, Dinnerstein, who had no label or management deal at the time, decided to raise money independently to make a recording of her interpretation of Bach's masterpiece.

The result of that effort, Dinnerstein's debut solo album simply called "Bach: Goldberg Variations," won quick acclaim and was soon picked up by renowned classical label Telarc. It entered Billboard's Top Classical Albums chart at No. 1 and broke Top Heatseekers a week later at No. 45.

Dinnerstein is creating buzz with her take on the Variations for many reasons, chief among them "her unbelievable use of color, her interpretative abilities, her rhythm and clarity -- everything," says Telarc president Bob Woods. "Every note means something: nothing is overlooked, nothing is forced."

Dinnerstein's story, however, is nearly as compelling. In fact, Woods says "stories like this, in our world, are quite unusual."

He's referring to the fact that Dinnerstein's career path has been unlike the traditional classical artist's: she did not start playing her instrument until she was 7 (most classical artists start by age 3 or 4), she did not spend her early years winning major competitions, she did not have management representing her in the industry.

But what Dinnerstein did have was a remarkable recording, one that captures her willingness to break with tradition and interpret the Variations in fresh, vibrant and highly personal ways.

Woods admits he was "taken aback" when he first heard the disc. "We're all so used to Glenn Gould's version of the Variations. Simone performs the opening aria, on which all the variations are based, at a much slower tempo. But once I got past that," he continues, "I realized how wonderful this work is. I realized Simone has ‘it.'"

Members of the press and managers who were sent short samples of the album prior to its debut recital at New York's Carnegie Hall were also intrigued. Dinnerstein says it was "an interesting concert. Many people that probably would never have come to see a concert of mine, because I wasn't well known, came because they'd heard part of the recording."

Her performance got rave reviews in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and shortly thereafter Dinnerstein was for the first time taken on by a major management company: "I was 32. That's very unusual in classical music."

Now, everything has changed for the pianist. She is about to embark on her busiest-ever concert season, playing in halls the world over and brining her unique interpretation of the Variations to countless new ears.

"I feel incredibly lucky," Dinnerstein says, "but I also feel like I have a lot of work to do. One of the great things about being a musician is that you constantly keep growing. The Variations, for me, are different now than when I recorded them. I continue to develop how I feel about the piece. I look forward to doing that for a long time."