An Interview with Kirill Gerstein
Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein makes his 92Y solo recital debut on April 21. In 2010, he received the Gilmore Artist Award and an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Yet he first came to the US as a teenager to study jazz.
As a boy in Soviet Russia, how did you discover jazz?
My parents had a collection of jazz records. My father was a mathematician and my mother specialized in the development of children’s musical abilities—she was my first teacher. For a certain generation of Soviet intelligentsia, jazz represented freedom and had a “Western” flavor. I grew up playing classical music, but I listened to jazz records and taught myself to play jazz by ear. At age 12, I got to meet Gary Burton, the legendary jazz musician and then vice president of Berklee College of Music in Boston, at a festival in St. Petersburg. One thing led to another, and two years later, I had a full scholarship to study jazz at Berklee.
Why did you switch back to classical music?
I realized I had to make a choice between a lifetime spent in improvisation, experiencing the joy of creating music on the spot, or in studying the meaning and complexities of compositions produced by the greatest minds of western music—Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and others. Eventually, I choose that second path.
How do you create a recital program?
A recital program is very much a reflection of a pianist’s personality. Sometimes a recital will grow from a central piece, and I will place other pieces around it that have various connections to it—historical, aural, stylistic, synonymous or antagonistic. It’s a bit like cooking—you have an idea as you begin, but as you add your ingredients, things may not necessarily end up the way you originally conceived. It’s important to have a balanced menu—a variety between salty, savory, sour and sweet.
What are you serving us at 92Y?
In a very over-simplified way, music can be divided into two categories: dance and song. So the theme for my recital is music related to dance. Once I chose that theme, I knew that I wanted to include one of Bach’s English suites. Bach’s suites are presented in very elaborate dressings, but their origin is in traditional Baroque dance forms. Weber’s Invitation to the Dance is one of the very first concert waltzes; placing a waltz in a concert setting in 1819 was a novel and spicy thing to do. Both Busoni and Liszt base their pieces on material from earlier composers, Busoni on Mozart, and Liszt on Schubert. These great personalities meld until you can’t tell their strands apart. And the entire atmosphere of Schumann’s Carnaval is permeated by the spirit of the dance.
How did the Knussen work come about?
Ophelia’s Last Dance is a commission that came with my Gilmore Award, and it was an honor to receive it. It is important for new music to be heard in concerts, with an emphasis on “music” and not on “new.” I don’t approach Ophelia’s Last Dance any differently than Carnaval. I hope the audience will listen to them with the same musical ear as well.
[Kirill Gerstein, piano - April 21]
(Photo via IMG Artists)