The eloquent pianist used a work break imposed by the pandemic to learn something new: stage directing, a skill set she put to use in creating a multimedia recital.



Finally today, many of us have snapshots of ourselves as infants. But pianist Simone Dinnerstein has a different kind of baby picture. Her father, Simon, included her sitting on her mother's lap in his enormous 14-foot wide painting, The Fulbright Triptych. That 1974 masterwork is at the center of a new multimedia performance piece devised and directed by Dinnerstein. It's called "The Eye Is The First Circle," and it premieres Thursday. Jeff Lunden has this report.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Simone Dinnerstein lives in a house in Brooklyn not far from where she grew up. We sat at her dining room table with a large replica of The Fulbright Triptych behind her. Her infant self looked over her right shoulder. It was all very meta.

SIMONE DINNERSTEIN: It looks almost like a Renaissance altarpiece, except instead of having the baby Jesus in the central panel, the central panel is all about the creation of a work of art and has a copper plate in the middle. That is what my father was engraving at the time that he started working on this painting.


DINNERSTEIN: And my parents and I are on either side of this central panel that is devoted to art. And that's really how I was raised, in that the most important thing really was art.

LUNDEN: And within the triptych are other works of art - postcards of paintings, photos, literary quotations, children's drawings. Dinnerstein wanted to explore her own relationship to this painting, which is both a family heirloom and a public work of art.

DINNERSTEIN: And I knew that I wanted to address aspects of the painting that were meaningful to me, having to do with family and inspiration and I guess a sense of spirituality that I feel the painting reflects.

LUNDEN: A few years ago, she approached Jedidiah Wheeler, executive director of Peak Performances in Montclair, N.J., with the idea, and he commissioned her.

JEDIDIAH WHEELER: What captured my imagination was the possibility that an artist of one particular and indisputable discipline, expertise in piano, wanted to step out of that.

LUNDEN: Wheeler introduced Dinnerstein to Laurie Olinder, a visual artist, to create projections and animations based on the painting. Olinder says she spent two and a half hours on a ladder in front of the triptych with her camera capturing...

LAURIE OLINDER: Every single detail of the painting - you know, multiple ones of each of the little postcards and the landscape. I even took movies of just moving the camera across the painting.

LUNDEN: Olinder's visuals, projected on three screens behind Dinnerstein at the piano and at times on a scrim in front of her, focus on various elements of the painting while the pianist plays Charles Ives's "Concord" sonata.


LUNDEN: The piece is in four movements devoted to the American authors Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau. And the music ranges from spiky and difficult to simple and beautiful. Dinnerstein says the Ives piece feels much like her father's painting.

DINNERSTEIN: That's the musical kind of equivalent - a huge, ambitious piece of music that is striving to somehow, through the abstract medium of textless music, to emulate the philosophies of various transcendentalist writers.

LUNDEN: At times, the audience will see a live feed of Dinnerstein playing from the inside of the piano via tiny spyware cameras placed in the soundboard. At other times, they'll see images of the pianist walking in the garden of her childhood home.


LUNDEN: But it's the manipulation of the painting itself that creates some of the more emotional moments in the piece. While Dinnerstein says she reveres and loves her father's triptych...

DINNERSTEIN: One of the things that I've always been bothered by was the fact that my father is on one side, and my mother and I are on the other side. And we're separated by art. And I just wanted them to be sitting next to each other. I asked Laurie, can we do that? Can we bring them next to each other? And she said yes.

LUNDEN: Simone Dinnerstein's parents, now in their late 70s, will be sitting in the audience at the premiere of "The Eye Is The First Circle." For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.