Americana singer Tift Merritt, classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein form unlikely duo

Contributing Music WriterFebruary 20, 2014 

Simone Dinnerstein, left, and Tift Merritt each had some trepidation about collaborating, but both say they grew from taking musical risks.



    'Night': An Evening with Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt

    When: 8 p.m. Feb. 22.

    Where: Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts Weisiger Theatre, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville.

    Tickets: $30. Available at 1-877-448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or

The design of the alliance fascinates before a single note is played.

Representing one musical community is Simone Dinnerstein, an internationally acclaimed classical pianist, considered one of her generation's foremost interpreters of Johann Sebastian Bach. From another musical terrain altogether is Tift Merritt, a veteran of the decades-old alt-country movement who has become regarded as an Americana songwriter of intense personal reflection.

How did they happen to cross paths? A better question might be: When?


On their 2013 recording Night, Dinnerstein and Merritt create a genre-free, nocturnally themed song cycle. The song sources are intentionally scattered. The album places Merritt's originals alongside highly adapted works by Franz Schubert, Billie Holiday, Henry Purcell, Patty Griffin, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and even Dinnerstein's beloved Bach. Musically, however, the performances are strictly duets, with Dinnerstein on piano and Merritt on guitar, vocals and, during a version of Schubert's Night and Dreams, a gorgeously plaintive harmonica.

"The nice thing about this collaboration was that it really was a long process," Merritt said. "It's something we first began maybe three years ago. By the time we were in the very beautiful theater where we recorded it," she says of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, "we had been able to have enough time to dig into where our worlds really were at. I don't think that was something we could do quickly or superficially. I practiced the program so much and rehearsed it so much in the beginning. Now, performing it again is like going back to a muscle I didn't know I had and getting to flex it."

Dinnerstein said, "I think this project has really pushed me a lot. It's definitely made me think differently about the classical repertoire that I'm playing. Just the fact that I took so many liberties from the classical music that we interpreted and yet it all felt so right together has made me think that I could definitely push myself to greater risks with the repertoire I'm playing in my normal recitals."

Having been introduced to each other by Gramophone magazine, Dinnerstein and Merritt discovered immediate professional and personal bonds. Still, finding the common musical ground so beautifully displayed on Night required each to take several steps outside her artistic comfort zone.

"Tift is really an intense and serious musician," Dinnerstein, 41, said. "I've learned a lot from working with her. She's extremely dedicated in terms of how she rehearses, and then the way that she performs is particularly striking to me. She's almost the musical equivalent of a Method actor in that she really becomes the music during the concert. Afterwards, she is just so emotional from the performance, which is completely understandable because she puts so much into it. I think that people in the audience feel the energy that comes from her during the concert. Certainly I do."

Merritt, 39, said, "It was such a scary leap of faith for me to play with a world-class musician like Simone, who is so proficient in the language of the music. It really was terrifying at first. But in the end, having held my own, it gives me some confidence. It's the kind of thing where when you begin taking risks, you are able to take more risks and build on that until it becomes so much more rewarding than scary. I think in my own work, I'm now able to bring that ability to risk more. But I'm also able to appreciate my own sort of sweet spot and why I do what I do having ventured into all of these other places."

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at

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