LIVE: Simone Dinnerstein & Tift Merritt @ The Hamilton Live – 5/2/13

Collaborations can be fraught with peril, particularly when they involve diverse inspirations, styles, or backgrounds. Thursday’s performance at majestic DC venue The Hamilton Live had elements of all of the above, but the talent, charm, and camaraderie of the performers, classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and folk singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, transcended any potential pitfalls that one might have expected. One of the most touching aspects of the show was the genuine admiration and friendship between the two performers. Merritt has a rich solo career steeped in the folk traditions of North Carolina. She is a gifted lyricist and multi-instrumentalist with a deft touch on acoustic guitar and a fluid, soulful voice that can convey airiness, weariness, strength, and betrayal from one note to the next. Dinnerstein is an accomplished pianist with Brooklyn roots who is capable of making compositions by Franz Schubert or Johann Sebastian Bach seem like she conjured them up in an idle moment’s daydreams. Together, the duo delivered moment after sublime moment of great music in support of their magnificent collaboration Night.

The evening began with a labyrinthine piano introduction from Dinnerstein before Merritt joined her for a moving rendition of “Only in Songs,” performed on a gorgeous, well-loved acoustic guitar that would serve as her instrument of choice for much of the night. They also performed dark, mournful renditions of “Night and Dreams,” which rivaled the album version in beauty and surpassed it in intensity, and “I Shall Weep At Night,” composed by legendary pianist Brad Mehldau at the duo’s request. The set was well balanced in terms of allowing both performers opportunities to shine. Dinnerstein’s spellbinding performance of Bach’s “Prelude in B minor” was one such example. It served as an amazing shift in tone from Merritt’s solo acoustic piece which preceded it and the haunting rendition of “I Will Give My Love An Apple” which followed. This in turn contrasted brilliantly with the graceful, searching melancholy of “Colors,” a demo of which Merritt shared with Dinnerstein while she was writing her brilliant solo album Traveling Alone. The final version features Dinnerstein plucking the strings of her grand piano from within in a style reminiscent of the dulcimer, as influenced by contemporary classical composer George Crumb, while Merritt delivers a master performance for budding singer-songwriters to emulate.

In an evening full of highlights, “The Cohen Variations” also stood tall. Dinnerstein and Merritt commissioned contemporary composer Daniel Felsenfeld to create a piece based upon the melody to Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Suzanne.” While the original is filled with naked adoration of the titular subject, Dinnerstein’s interpretation of Felsenfeld’s work is imbued with the vulnerability and uncertainty that makes love simultaneously invigorating and terrifying. “The Cohen Variations” was followed a driving, brooding interpretation of Patty Griffin’s “Night” before giving way to the uplift of a playful arrangement of Johnny Nash’s classic “I Can See Clearly Now,” which showcased the lightness and confidence of Merritt’s spectacular voice.

The Hamilton Live was a perfect venue for these two truly talented artists to shine. On initial consideration their varied backgrounds might make their collaboration seem less than intuitive, but their skill level often transcended those differences. And while the night held many moments when their immense talent and contrasting sonic palettes blended perfectly, the attempt was never forced. There was clearly enough respect from one for the other and for the audience that the folk and classical traditions were allowed to stand on their own and to coexist separately in service of an amazing show.