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Classical 101

‘An American Mosaic’ Honors Frontline Workers

 Pianist Simone Dinnerstein
Lisa Marie Mazzucco
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Pianist Simone Dinnerstein

Composer Richard Danielpour says he barely slept during the month of April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic forced the U.S. into lockdown and the death toll skyrocketed.

“The only thing that was able to relax me enough to sleep,” Danielpour later wrote, “was listening to (pianist) Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach recordings.”

Those acclaimed recordings also became the spark for Danielpour’s own musical response to the coronavirus pandemic in his piano suite An American Mosaic. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival and premiered by Dinnerstein in a Dec. 2020 live stream, An American Mosaic has recently been released on CD.

After Danielpour conceived the idea to compose An American Mosaic, he called Dinnerstein to thank her for her Bach recordings and to propose that he write the suite for her. The two knew of each other only by reputation.

“I still haven’t met him,” Dinnerstein said of Danielpour in a recent interview. “But he feels like a friend.”

In our interview, Dinnerstein speaks about what she describes as Danielpour’s “beautiful” and “intimate” musical language in An American Mosaic pays tribute to frontline workers, whom Danielpour calls “the heroes of our time.”

In April and May 2020, Danielpour watched in horror as the pandemic took lives and ravaged families and communities. But he also saw heroism in action. Teachers turned on a dime and took their classes online. Nurses and physicians worked long hours treating those with COVID-19. Clergy comforted congregants who had lost loved ones to the virus and reassured them that, in their isolation, they had not been abandoned.

These people, Danielpour writes, “comprise a mosaic of heroes that we will never forget.”

An American Mosaic album cover
Supertrain Records

An American Mosaic is Danielpour’s tribute to the people who make up these groups, as defined in the titles of eight of the work’s 15 movements – “Caretakers & Research Physicians,” “Parents & Children,” “Rabbis & Ministers,” “Journalists, Poets & Writers,” “Documentary Film Makers & Photographers,” “Physicians & Interns,” “Teachers & Students” and “Prophets & Martyrs.” The last group encompasses black lives lost to COVID-19 as a result of unequal access to medical care.

Interspersed throughout the suite are four “Consolations,” which Danielpour composed in counterpoint, a technique Bach’s music exemplifies.

“Bach was the composer that (Danielpour) turned to when he was feeling so stressed and distraught during the pandemic,” Dinnerstein said, “and I think it’s interesting that the “Consolations” are contrapuntal for that reason.”

Movements called “The Visible Enemy” and “The Invisible Enemy” are Danielpour’s deeply personal musical responses to America’s political landscape at the beginning of the pandemic and to the virus itself. Placed midway through the piece, “An Elegy for Our Time” has the feel of a wistful meditation in an era of overwhelming loss.

The CD release of An American Mosaic concludes with Danielpour’s solo piano transcriptions of movements from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass. Made specifically for Dinnerstein, these transcriptions bring Danielpour’s journey through the early months of the pandemic back to the consoling and inspiring music of Bach.

“Personally,” Dinnerstein said, “for him to have found me through Bach and to write transcriptions of Bach for me is a beautiful circle.”