My knowledge of music from the 60s is limited, and I usually don’t have much patience for repetitive melodies, but you can count me as a new fan of Leonard Cohen and his most popular song, “Suzanne.” I didn’t realize that I liked “Suzanne” until after I heard a new solo piano piece inspired by the song: The Cohen Variations, written by classical composer Daniel Felsenfeld for the concert pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
The very idea that a classical composer and a pianist turned a folk-rock song with a simple melody into a difficult, varied piano piece that requires crossing hands and using the entire keyboard was enough to intrigue me. After watching Simone Dinnerstein’s performance of The Cohen Variations, with its interesting constructions and captivating variations on a theme, I went back to the Leonard Cohen version with new ears. As I listened more closely, the 1967 song drew me in with its mysterious lyrics, and I started to notice the music’s rich layers. It seems like a somewhat backwards route into appreciating a classic song, but maybe that’s one reason artists are always covering and rearranging and reinterpreting the music they love: to get the message through to people who missed it the first time.
In addition to recording this video of Simone Dinnerstein performing the music in her home studio, GRAND PIANO PASSION™ has produced a fascinating mini-documentary on the making of the Cohen Variations, which premieres tomorrow. While working with the interview footage of Danny Felsenfeld and Simone Dinnerstein, I was struck by how the composer and the pianist had such complementary answers even though they were interviewed separately. Their mutual understanding of “Suzanne” led them to turn the piece into something entirely different that still carries a lot of the emotion and intrigue of the original singer-songwriter creation.