Interview: Pianist Kirill Gerstein on the eve of his performance at Weill Hall with the San Francisco Symphony
Born in Voronezh, Russia, in 1979, classical pianist Kirill Gerstein was the winner of the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv. In 2010, he was awarded the prestigious $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award. Gerstein first touched foot in the U.S. at age 14, when he went to Berklee College of Music in Boston as a jazz pianist (their youngest student ever). There wasn’t any live jazz to be heard in Voronezh, but Gerstein fell in love with it by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection and it was his skill at improvisation that led to a scholarship to Berklee. He went on to tackle classical repertoire in summers at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s at the Manhattan School of Music at 20. Gerstein, now 35, has spent his life balancing his love of classical music and jazz but chose to focus his energy on classical playing. And what a life he’s crafted. With his technical prowess and ability to communicate his connection to the music, he’s emerged as one of the most respected and insightful pianists of his generation. He manages a global touring schedule that includes recitals, chamber music and concerto solos and carves out time to teach. Since receiving the Gilmore Award, he has commissioned boundary-crossing new works from Oliver Knussen, Chick Corea (Jazz), Brad Mehldau (Jazz) and Timothy Andres, and additional commissions are in the works. This Thursday, at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Gerstein performs Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with Charles Dutoit and the San Francisco Symphony. Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10” is also in the program. Composed after Stalin’s death in 1953, this piece, since the late 1970’s, has been seen as a depiction of the Stalin years in Russia and is considered one of the most devastating essays in the twentieth-century symphonic literature. This is the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series. The concert will also be performed at Davies Symphony Hall Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Gerstein’s latest album, Imaginary Pictures (Myrios Classics) which features Schumann’s “Carnaval” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” will be made available this week at Weill Hall and at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, before its general release on June 10. Immediately after each concert, including Thursday’s performance, Gerstein will be greeting the audience and signing copies of the new cd in the lobby. Gerstein’s recording in 2010 of the Liszt Sonata “Humoresque” and a piece by Oliver Knussen, also on Myrios Classics, was considered one of the best recordings of 2010.
Typically, a soloist as busy as Gerstein would perform one concerto and move on, but the Bay Area is in for treat because on Sunday, June 8, we will have the special opportunity to hear Gerstein perform Chamber Music with Members of the San Francisco Symphony. This is gorgeous music that musicians love to play and audiences live to hear and Gerstein will be playing Dvořák’s “Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Opus 90, Dumky” and Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet in G Minor, opus 57.”
Yesterday, in between rehearsals, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kirill Gerstein about his extraordinary career and his commissions. Known for his fiery, dramatic playing, his vocal style is crisp and to the point. In short time though, he demonstrated that his musical curiosity and insights are profound.
Here is our conversation—
You were born in 1979 in very interesting part of Russia, Voronezh—the intersection between Urals and Siberia and Caucasus and Ukraine…a real hinterland. What did you do for fun there growing up? And when did your love of music really take hold?
I generally have fun and I don’t think, even as child, that I made a distinction between fun and non-fun—it was all fun and I didn’t have any realizations about something missing in Voronezh. I enjoyed studying music and reading and my parents made sure that I spoke with a lot of people. I wasn’t the tortured prodigy you sometimes read about. I practiced but not those crazy amounts you hear about.
And when did your love of music really take hold?
Kirill Gerstein: Music has always accompanied me. My mother is a musician and she taught college but she also taught at home and the piano was there and she was my first teacher. I don’t remember any time without music or the piano. So it wasn’t a certain moment or lesson, it was just always there and my interest increased. Most of my exposure was to classical music. I went to a lot of concerts. The jazz was only from recordings as there wasn’t really an active jazz scene in Russia. There was a bit in Moscow, but not very much, and certainly not in Voronezh which was not a capital city. I really liked Chic Corea and Keith Jarrett and listened over and over.
In reading about your life, it seems like praise has been heaped upon you since you were a child. Who’s been the most influential teacher you’ve had and why and what hurdle did that person take you over? Did you immediately win him or her with your playing, or was it more of a brutal relationship where you really had to strive?
Kirill Gerstein: There was a lot of praise and heaped is correct. Studying music is a process where you encounter a lot of criticism that accentuates your weak spots as a player and as a person and that’s how you learn. The process is to do justice to the music. The two most important teachers I had were Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and Ferenc Rados in Budapest. Both of them, especially the first time, were very harshly critical of what I did but it was clear to me that they had some very valuable information that I wanted and needed. So, in spite of the ego bruising, I stayed with them and worked with them. With Dmitri Bashkirov, who I had heard in Voronezh in concert as child, because he happened to give regular concerts there, I was transfixed, so that was particularly important. I first played for him in Spain when I was about 17 and he was harsh but there was such insight. I kept returning and, finally, I broke through and began to really develop my playing and took his class. I worked with him for years.
The lives and careers of Beethoven and Shostakovich were separated by over a century and in their works we can see how they wrestled with these big themes of freedom, liberty, and politics. The concert, I hope, will illuminate some of the subtler, musical traits that these composers have in common. What comes to mind for you in the pairing of the No. 2 and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10”?
Kirill Gerstein: I think this is a good pairing. In terms of Russian composers of the 20th century, Shostakovich was a composer of great symphonies. The symphonic composer was really defined, or let’s say redefined, by Beethoven in ways that impacted every subsequent generation from Brahms onwards, including Shostakovich. Mozart and Haydn wrote very important symphonies but Beethoven with his nine symphonies is really a towering presence who went beyond classical music to impact all of Western culture. Shostakovich was aware of this and in many ways inspired by these symphonic models and the two do go very well together. You could say that, in some ways, Shostakovich modeled his compositional ideals on Beethoven, not necessarily the style but concept behind it, and you have the important body of string quartets by both composers for which this also holds.
The two pieces on Thursday’s program are very different in sprit and mood because the “Symphony No. 10” is a later piece of Shostakovich whereas the Beethoven “Piano Concerto No. 2” was actually composed first. This is really the most youthful of his five piano concertos, where he’s just starting to depart form the models of Mozart and Haydn but it does so boldly, just as he lived his life. In this concerto, he does show that he has studied and absorbed the great models of Mozart and Haydn but also that he has much to say that’s very original. It’s also a piece filled with lots of humor and a beautiful second movement that’s very much inspired by the Italian operatic traditions because one of his teachers was Antonio Salieri, very influential.
On Sunday, at Davies you’ll be performing a very special chamber music concert which includes the Shostakovich “Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57 and the Dvorak “Piano Trio No 4 in E Minor, Opus 90.” The third movement of the Shostakovich is this amazing scherzo and trio that has a kind of dark sarcasm to it. What’s your favorite part of this piece?
Kirill Gerstein: Well, I clearly like the entire piece. You’re right, the third movement is a style of overt optimism, projected and fitting for the Soviet period but underneath anyone can detect this is not happy at all but quite the opposite. This was a very common M.O. for Shostakovich…happiness on the face and darkness in the soul.
How do you prepare before a performance? Is there some routine you adhere to?
Kirill Gerstein: I try not to subscribe to any routines because then you end up breaking the routine and it becomes all about that. There’s a lot to coordinate—your own travel schedule, rehearsal times vary, the pieces are all varied. Trying to have a routine is a very futile undertaking. And the preparing, well, the performance is really a window into something that’s a very continuous process that I think about all the time. I practice the piano whether there is or is not a concert. Of course, a public performance brings a wonderful inspiration to the performer who has his life in music.
You have an ongoing collaboration with Charles Detoit, who will be conducting this Thursday. You obviously have a special rapport. What clicks?
Kirill Gerstein: Well, I met Charles probably ten years ago and he has been a wonderfully supportive collaborator and mentor in quite a variety of repertoire—German, modern pieces, and now the Beethoven Concerto No. 2. I really feel an established musical and personal connection with him and can say that he is someone who is always inspiring to be with. Professionally, he’s very accomplished and generous.
Your new album, Imaginary Pictures, to be released June 10 by Myrios Classics, features Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Schumann’s famous “Carnaval,” both cycles of piano pieces in which the visual was the departure point that fired the composers’ imaginations—in one case actual drawings by Victor Herman and the other, masked revelers at a party. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your pairing of these magnificent works. Also, in preparing for the recording, was there anything new you found in these works?
Kirill Gerstein: There are several reasons to pair the two. Certainly, they both have overtly visual starting points but it’s not just ‘simple paintings in sound,’ which is the obvious parallel. Both composers go much deeper to create a psychological portrayal of how they viewed the subjects and ultimately it becomes more about them as observers. The composers themselves were both self-taught and they had this kind of wild unbridled imagination in common which led to unexpected wonderful things appearing from nowhere. They knew the academic and classical traditions very well but were always pushing the boundaries, so even though their music sounds quite different, the creative spirit is a kindred one. And yes, the pieces are very popular but that wasn’t sufficient—unless there was something new and somewhat subjective and different to bring to the piece, there was no point to record it. I decided to record them because, when I looked at the score on the page, some things appeared differently to me than I was used to hearing. For example, in “Pictures at an Exhibition”—one of the most played pieces in the piano and orchestral repertoire—some things felt like discoveries to be explored. Of course, the process of recording itself stimulates this feeling of discovery.
I heard that you wrote the liner notes for this album too.
Kirill Gerstein: I did that for my previous cd too by the way. Generally, I enjoy writing. I’ve written for the gallery section of the New York Review of Books website and that’s something I intend to do more of as I enjoy the process. To me, that’s part of being a well-rounded expressive person not just a pianist pressing buttons on a keyboard. (Click here to read Kirill Gerstein “Tchaikovsky’s ‘Wrong’ Note,” NYR Gallery, August 13, 2013.) Specifically, this was also an invitation to think more about the pairing and what the music is trying to express, the philosophical territory.
Speaking of visual inspiration, many composers embrace other art forms for inspiration with their music. What other art forms have you found strong inspiration in?
Kirill Gerstein: In general, movement is inspiring, so dance is influential, but so are painting, poetry, prose and performances from great actors as well. Architecture is something that is inspiring for thinking about music. But these aren’t direct influences; they are indirect and after some time. It’s letting myself be inspired by the many things I encounter, like seeing a great sushi chef cut the fish with a fluid movement that repeated by his hand time and time again—that’s an aesthetic pleasure that has inspiration. In the end, it’s about walking with your eyes open.
You won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010, which is given every four years—one of the most prestigious and generous awards a concert pianist can receive. The cash prize of $300,000 stipulates that $250,000 is to be put toward “career development.” I understand that you are putting that to use by commissioning works by living composers, including jazz composers. Can you tell us a little about the pieces you’ve commissioned so far and what is in the works? Do you have ongoing interaction with these musicians?
Kirill Gerstein: I’ve purposefully chosen very different individuals. There’s a great figure in modern music, Oliver Knussen, the British composer and conductor. On the other hand, there’s the young up and coming American composer and pianist, Timo Andres. Andres’ “Old Friend” had its world premiere at Boston’s Jordan Hall on Jan 31, 2014 and I played the piece. There have been a couple of jazz-related commissions—the great jazz pianists, Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea, have both written pieces for me. The idea was to pass this money on to other artists, in this case composers, and in return, to get an artwork that for the initial period is exclusive to my concert programs, an additional benefit. Eventually, the pieces will be for each pianist to play and they will add variety and enrich the piano repertoire. It’s been very rewarding being part of the impetus that gets new pieces created and out there. The exchange between the music creator/composer is another source of inspiration and something that shows you how some of the great golden composers—Beethoven, Rachmaninoff—may have participated in that process of collaboration between composer and performer.
Did the composers you commissioned meet your expectations?
Kirill Gerstein: I try not the have expectations. I let myself be surprised not only by the composers but by life in general—it’s mentally more efficient. I have been very satisfied with all of the works and inspired by the process.
Speaking of inspiration, what type of music do you listen to when you want to relax?
Kirill Gerstein: When I relax I don’t listen to music usually. It’s such an intense process for me that it snaps me back into this very engaged mode. And I don’t listen to background music either.
You started life in Russia, moved early to the States and now your parents live in Boston and you teach at Stuttgart’s Musikhochschule, and your wife, Noam, is from Tel Aviv. Which place do you consider home and how do you define home?
Kirill Gerstein: This is very philosophical and should be the subject of an entire interview but, having had this varied history, I feel at home in many places. Obviously, you give up some feeling of being rooted but on the other hand what I’ve gained is being at home and comfortable in many places in the world and in different cultures and circles. Something lost, something gained.
Have you ever been to the Wine Country where you’ll be preforming this Thursday?
Kirill Gerstein: Yes I have. I really enjoy the wine making region so this is a special dream and tickle. A lot of the wine that I particularly enjoy comes from this area.
Concert Details: For tickets and more information for Thursday’s Weill Hall performance “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich”, click here. Tickets can also be purchased in person tomorrow at the Green Music Center Box Office for this concert, at 7 PM, one hour in advance of the concert. For the three San Francisco performances of the concert at Davies Hall, click here. For tickets and more information about Sunday’s Chamber music concert, click here.
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