“I just want to thank my parents,” said pianist Simone Dinnerstein after debuting her multimedia piece, “The Eye Is the First Circle,” at the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, Oct. 14. She did this to acknowledge their presence in the audience. But she could have been offering an alternate title, or a subtitle, to the piece, which she will continue to present at Montclair State through Oct. 17.
Because one of the many things “The Eye Is the First Circle” is, is an elaborate tribute to her parents, artist Simon Dinnerstein and educator and author Renée Dinnerstein. In the program to “The Eye Is the First Circle,” Simone Dinnerstein calls it “a very personal piece that, at its core, explores how my family’s world shaped my relationship to art.”
Most of the the production’s visual elements are derived from Simon Dinnerstein’s most famous painting, “The Fulbright Triptych” (1974), which pictures him and Renée as young parents, sitting in his studio, on opposite sides of a work table. Renée holds the young Simone in her lap; a copper plate that Simon had been engraving sits on the center of the table, and in the center of the painting. (You can see the painting on the bottom of this page.)
The painting is full of intriguing, evocative details. Though the three family members are sitting calmly in an enclosed space, two windows show the sprawling city outside. Simon’s tools, laid out on his table, encourage you to think about the arcane mysteries of the artistic process. The walls are filled, bulletin board-style, with images, presumably there for Simon to refer to, while he is working, and to inspire him. The grid of the radiator, visible under the table, suggests the keys of a piano.
The approximately hour-long “The Eye Is the First Circle” features Simone Dinnerstein playing Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata, No. 2, Concord, amid projections designed by Laurie Olinder. (Davison Scandrett and Simon Harding are also credited with contributing to the visual design, as is Dinnerstein herself.)
Like the painting, the Sonata is an ambitious work with countless layers of meaning. Its four movements represent the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Alcotts (Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott) and Henry David Thoreau. As grand and majestic as it sometimes is, it often has a roiling energy, suggesting an artist’s fervor in the moment of inspiration. There are also moments of dissonance, and one section calls for the pianist to play clusters of notes with a wooden block about a foot long.
Sometimes, as Dinnerstein played the challenging piece with firm command, audience members watched her graceful hands, magnified on the screens. At other times, cameras placed inside the piano showed the hammers hitting the strings. Animated images from “The Fulbright Triptych” sometimes danced across the screens; in a filmed segment, Dinnerstein was seen visiting the actual garden that inspired her father’s engraving on that copper plate. Sound effects were occasionally added to the music, but for most of the piece, all we heard was Dinnerstein’s inspired playing.
How lucky Simon and Renée Dinnerstein are, to have been able to witness their daughter take a beautifully rendered moment from their lives, nearly 50 years ago, and use it as the foundation for something equally beautiful and equally complex — and distinctly her own — now.
Remaining performances of “The Eye Is the First Circle” will take place Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Visit peakperfs.org.
Here is “The Fulbright Triptych”:
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