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Interview with pianist Kirill Gerstein

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at] A full list of interviews can be found here.

Born in Voronezh, Kirill Gerstein was the winner of the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv. In 2010, he was awarded a prestigious Gilmore Artist Award. A former student of Dmitri Bashkirov, he was also trained at Berklee as a jazz pianist. This week in San Francisco, Gerstein performs Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto with Charles Dutoit and the San Francisco Symphony (ticket information). His latest album, 'Imaginary Pictures', which features Schumann's 'Carnaval' and Moussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition', will be made available this week at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, before general release on June 10. Below is a transcript of our May 31, 2014 conversation with pianist Kirill Gerstein.

EH: Much like the Hungarian virtuoso, Georges Cziffra, you had early training in Jazz, and even seriously considered a career in it. With many similarities between the two art forms, I’d love to hear you speak about Jazz. While requiring tremendous brilliance and freedom, some believe it is the less prepared, perhaps less thought-out art form.

Gerstein: That’s interesting, and you’re right. I don’t think there is any dispute from Jazz musicians that what the great improvisers like Bach, like Beethoven, like Rachmaninoff, etc. sat at home and worked with over days, months, and even years, is more complex than anything great improvisers can play on the fly. The joys of improvisation - that flight of fantasy - and the challenges of what’s written and prepared, are to retain that feeling of freshness, that original spark of creativity. I think many of the great composers actually begin by writing this way; they play around with it much like a Jazz musician. But of course, there is then the process of selection, working it all out, adding the layers, etc.

On the other hand, what’s important to point out, especially as Jazz increases in its complexity, is that it’s become much more of an art form that combines both prepared material and, let’s say, the building blocks of the improvisation. When thinking about the Jazz art form, there really isn’t a sort of ‘out of thin air’ reality to it, though it certainly appears that way to some. Linguistic expectations of what fits, what doesn’t, along with all of the different types of players, have added to the complexity of the language, which then naturally requires more coordination, more of writing things out, etc. As far as I can tell, Jazz and Classical music really developed along the same lines, even though there is quite a delay of centuries between them.

EH: Was there a moment when you realized that certain aspects of your talent were perhaps better suited for one form and not the other ?

Gerstein: Oh, it’s actually directly related to your first question. I began studying Classical from a very early age, and my studies in Jazz began quite intensively soon after. I was at Berklee for three years, and I studied Jazz more intensively than Classical then, but I never gave that up either. By the time I was sixteen, I felt that either form required 130% of me, and certainly more hours than there are in a day. There was just so much to learn, and I felt that on the one-hand, if I had that element of spontaneity, that flight of fantasy that improvisation provided, perhaps I could spend my time studying the great library of classics that we have, especially as a pianist.

Conceptually, I felt I had to make a life decision, and the idea of roaming through the minds and creations of people like Bach, like Beethoven, like Schubert and Rachmaninoff, was simply a bigger draw for me. I really believe that nobody can practice both art forms on the same high-level, so to speak. I must point out that this was a decision I made at the age of sixteen, and it was a radical one.

However, experiences like winning the Gilmore award have encouraged me to do things that are mainstream and at the core of what I do as a classical pianist; on the other hand, I’ve also been fortunate to try things that are on the other side of my musical personality. On the fringe, I’ve done more jazz-related, less written-out projects - collaborating with Brad Mehldau, who wrote a piece for me, and a collaboration with Gary Burton around a piece that Chick Corea wrote for me. A couple of weeks ago at the Gilmore festival, I did a cabaret Jazz-club set with singer Storm Large from Pink Martini, who has quite a following (I did some original songs and some American standards), and this was right on the heels of playing Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto in Rome with the Santa Cecilia orchestra. All of these things contribute to my playing and my view of the mainstream repertoire. It’s not an attempt to be a Jazz pianist, but really, a way to be a more well-rounded musician.

EH: I must ask for your thoughts on two giants of the Jazz piano world: Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. Of course, please feel free to mention any others who have played a particular role in your development.

Gerstein: Art Tatum’s piano-playing is astounding, clearly. The inventiveness of what he does is just absolutely incredible. Personally, if I listen to him for an extended period of time, I find that it’s so brilliant – you hear a melody, and suddenly, there’s another passage, and another flourish that disperses within that passage, etc. – that it’s a little bit restless. It’s not something I always listen to, but it’s clearly brilliant. With the few videos we have of his playing, one has a hard time believing what the eyes are seeing and what the ears are hearing.

Coming from Russia, Monk’s playing was so contrary to the concepts of proper piano-playing that it took me a long time to understand him. It’s been twenty years, but I find myself inching closer and closer to him. His playing is almost the complete opposite of Tatum’s – there are so few notes, it’s so conceptual, and it’s not smooth piano-playing - but more and more, I admire the artistic and conceptual ideas in the many or few notes that Monk does play. These days, you’d probably catch me listening to Monk, and I expect to be more surprised by his playing than Tatum’s. With Monk, you simply never know what’s around the corner.

My heroes growing up, the ones I listened to constantly, were Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, and I still very much enjoy what they do. Later on, after my Berklee years, I discovered Brad Mehldau, and thought, ‘Well, this is what I’ve been wanting to hear in jazz-piano after all these years,’.

EH: You studied with Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid, whose recordings are simply phenomenal. What were your first impressions of this incredible musician, and what sort of lasting influence has he had on your artistry ?

Gerstein: As first impressions go, I was born and raised in Voronezh, a city he came to and performed in every year, and some of my earliest musical memories are of his recitals, actually. He’s quite a favorite amongst audiences, as you can imagine. He has a striking stage appearance, bouncing onto the stage, bowing very quickly, and diving right into the music. That’s really what I remember of him, and there was a very charged atmosphere every time.

I was sixteen or seventeen the first time I went to play for him, in Spain. Dang Thai Son might have told you what an emotional, extroverted person he is. And much like the two important teachers in my life –Ferenc Rados is the other - he absolutely hated the way I played (laughs). He told me, “If this is how you play, then maybe you should consider whether it is a necessity for you to perform,”. It was a fairly bloody affair, the whole thing (laughs). But he didn’t just criticize. He really took the time to explain things to me – it certainly wasn’t just, ‘I don’t like this’. I thought, ‘Well, this hurts, this is definitely an ego-bruiser’, but I went back a second time some months later. I kept trying, and would go back every few months, six, eight or ninth months, etc.

Finally, one day, I brought him the Liszt Sonata, and I think that was the turning point. I played it for him, and he said, “Actually, I see that you are changing - you’re actually developing,”. And from that moment on, he asked me to come to his masterclasses. About three or four years later, he told me there was a spot available in his class in Madrid, which was very difficult to get into, especially as a foreign student. It was a remarkable experience, and I rethought, reworked, and tried to re-feel everything I could. The school at the time, in Madrid, was in an area with nothing else to do, so it was very much like a summer music camp, except for the entire year (laughs).

About ten months after I started working with him, I entered the Rubinstein competition with some relatively new repertoire, and won. For three years, I continued studying with him in Madrid, but more importantly, after my years in Madrid, I continued playing for him.

EH: I ask every pianist this question, because each has a slightly different hand: which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for yours ?

Gerstein: Oh, I find them all very challenging! I don’t think I can really give you an answer (laughs). The difficulties are all very different: the First is so unlike the one in double-thirds (Op. 25 No. 6). Generally, to paraphrase Busoni, if you look at any piece or passage from the standpoint of a virtuoso, then even a Czerny etude becomes very difficult. You can spend a long time perfecting a Czerny or even a Hanon exercise, if you are to play it the way a true virtuoso sees it.

EH: I read that at one point, you had at least twelve different programs in your fingers, to be performed over a span of two months. How is your musical memory today ?

Gerstein: No, I think it takes time. Once I learn something, I retain it quite well, but I’m not one of those people with instant-recall, someone who can boast, ‘I haven’t looked at this piece in ten years. Oh, let me play it on stage without practicing it,’ (laughs).

Most of the things I’ve studied come back quickly within a few days. I try to have a systemic approach to learning: when you encounter pretty much any passage, it can be categorized as similar to that of many others. In Brahms’ Second Concerto, for example, there’s a passage that reminds me of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Rachmaninoff’s Third – so when I arrive at those passages, it’s not like I haven’t looked at them in years. I try to make both my head and fingers think. It’s certainly not a new language every time. I play quite a few concertos, quite a few recitals and chamber music programs every season, and it all keeps me very stressed, but I think it’s good to have a broad repertoire.

EH: On the subject of repertoire, over the past two-hundred years, there’s been a trend veering from the performance of contemporary works. Do today’s performers have the duty to perform the works of living composers ? Is there a living or relatively little-known composer from the past whose works you’d highly recommend ?

Gerstein: I think two-hundred years is perhaps a bit exaggerated. We’re talking maybe 1860-1880, where many performers were still composers, and they’d often say, ‘Here’s what my friend wrote,’ etc. So I think it’s the fault of the last 100 to 130 years (laughs). And I wouldn’t call it duty. Duty makes it sound dutiful (laughs). We have a duty to be curious, which means looking around, giving you no excuse to not play at least some music by living composers.

I think in general, we’re a bit too concerned with finding the next masterpiece and how it will stand the test of time. Comparing works to every great piano piece that’s ever been written makes things very difficult for composers and performers. The whole art form is a living thing, and it took time for the dust to settle on a given period, for us to really know which the lasting masterpieces are. For modern composers, it’s still cooking: which ones deserve to be performed ? which ones are masterpieces ? I certainly have my personal favorites. I would play anything from my friends, like Oliver Knussen or Thomas Adès, without thinking, ‘Is this going to be the next Hammerklavier ?’.

In terms of the voices who are forgotten or misunderstood, one of the people I have to mention is Ferruccio Busoni. The transcriptions he wrote, as a younger musician, are the majority of what’s known to the public, but what he wrote later, his original compositions, are so very important. What is known doesn’t even represent the most interesting of his views on composition, or the aesthetics explained in his writing - not just as a composer, but as a musical thinker. Busoni was one who triggered many things in the decades that came after him, and he’s never received the credit for it.

EH: Is there one composer whose works you cannot feel any love or personal connection for ? Marc-André Hamelin told us just a few months ago that he cannot feel much for Copland’s music, even if he knows that it’s great.

Gerstein: As a performer, I would say that I take it as a challenge that if I’m tasked with playing a certain piece, that for the time I’m involved with it, I try to suspend whatever negative judgment and pretend to fall in love with it, to be as intensely engaged with it as I possibly can. Some of these connections will stay with me, but others will fall away. I don’t often play things I don’t feel any connection with.

Just picking up on what Marc-André Hamelin said, do I feel I necessarily need to play the Copland Concerto ? No, I don’t feel compelled to. Perhaps a more mainstream example is that at the moment, I don’t feel a great compulsion to play the Prokofieff Sixth Sonata. But I think this is because I’ve heard it played far too many times at auditions and competitions. The same can be said about certain works of Chopin. Some works of Chopin have been so obscured by the many, many performances of them. I find it difficult to quietly clean it all away from my ear-palette, to really give these pieces the treatment as they appear to me. But these things do change.

Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, if you asked me five years ago, is a piece I thought I would never play. But I somehow feel closer to it now, that it’s been speaking to me from the page, and away from it. I’ve actually just recorded it. Some of these changes come from teaching, where it’s my task to really challenge the student to look at what’s on the page, and not necessarily to tell them how so-and-so played it. The wonderful thing about the piano repertoire is that there are so many incredible pieces. I would love to play many that I haven’t yet, but time is limited.

EH: In 2001, you were the winner of the Arthur Rubinstein competition; the 2014 edition concluded just days ago. I would love to hear your thoughts on music competitions. Is there any advice you can offer to younger students about the career and the business, something that isn’t taught in music schools ?

Gerstein: The funny thing about competitions is that one has to be careful about the final rounds. By the time they come around – there’s probably web-streaming and more people are tuning in – very often the performers are tired, and they haven’t toured with their concertos with orchestras in thirty or forty different cities over the past ten years. So I sympathize with the finalists. It’s not an easy experience. Very often, the finals of the larger competitions are actually weaker than some of the playing in the earlier rounds, and this certainly invites criticism. Some will say, ‘well, this year wasn’t very strong, how could this be the best ?’. The ‘meat’, I would say, is probably found in the earlier rounds.

There’s a lot that isn’t taught in music schools. In terms of competitions, students often think of them as an opportunity to get started, to get a boost on a career, and that’s great. People are very concentrated to try to make that happen. But it’s also important to realize that after the win is when the real test begins.

To win a competition, things probably went very well for about two or three weeks against a group people and under whatever circumstances. From then on, everybody says, ‘well okay, let’s hear the new Rubinstein or Cliburn winner’, and every presenter and musician you come in contact and play with, is a test. It’s a much more serious situation than the competition, which is a prelude to that.

If I practiced a lot before the Rubinstein, I was practicing and working in various ways a lot more after I won. They will ask you if you can play this piece or that piece, and it’s no longer perfect lab-conditions, where you can prepare for as long as you’d like, where you select your own repertoire, etc. My advice is that it’s important to be prepared for that eventuality, to learn as much repertoire as possible.

There’s also the necessity to try to quickly convert yourself from a Rubinstein winner, or a Leeds winner, or a Van Cliburn winner, to whatever your name is. Because there is going to be a ‘next winner’ in the coming years. If presenters and audiences simply identify you as the current winner, your shelf-life is only three or four years. So this is where individuality and personality needs to be projected.

EH: With the decline of newspapers and the rise of music blogs, in your opinion, has the role of the music critic changed ?

Gerstein: Music criticism can contribute to concert life, and not simply with the reviews. Usually, by the time a classical music review is published, the musician might no longer even be in the city, and they might not return for another year or two because of the way concert life is structured. In this respect, it’s very different from theater or film.

I realize the value of chronicling concert life, that it elevates the profile of these events, that readers are made aware and told of what happened. But I think in newspapers and on music blogs, it’s the interviews, the features, and especially an introduction and exposure of the public to the pieces that are most important. Fewer people are amateur musicians at home than ever before. This is where music journalism can be an important contribution to the survival of the art form. In this sense, any kind of pre-concert writing that might make people want to listen, or hear more things in the concert, are for me of primary importance, more so than the reviews.

EH: Your latest album, to be released June 10, features Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann’s Carnaval, two works that one could say, have certain similarities. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these magnificient works.

Gerstein: The album is called Imaginary Pictures, and the impetus for the pairing of these two cycles is that they obviously have this picturesque or visual element. But what also interested me was how much the meaning is actually in the deeper layers – both pieces are not just visually descriptive – how they really become psychological portraits and commentary on the way these composers saw things. In the end, it’s actually much more about the observer than the object, and it becomes much more symbolic.

In Bydło, for example, we know that there’s a heavy oxcart. But for me, it symbolizes the general Russian folk misery, the peasants, the dark and bumpy roads; it’s not just a tone-painting in sounds, but it symbolizes deeper trends and how the composer responded to those trends.

Between Schumann and Moussorgsky, there’s a certain similarity in their spirits: they were both the sort of ‘wild creatures’, skilled, self-taught, and they had a wildly imaginative streak that allowed them to create these magnificent, unexpected pieces, ideas that seem to pop out of nowhere, which is also what we love.

Both pieces have been very much recorded, but this pairing is fairly unexplored. I’ve written the CD notes, and I go quite in-depth. It basically became a departing point, to explore what meaning is in music. Music definitely means something, but it’s very difficult to explain what it’s trying to say - a very interesting phenomenon in itself, an area the philosophers and aestheticians are working on. The two pieces have this overtly visual excuse, and it’s an invitation to think more about this issue.

EH: This week in San Francisco, you’ll be performing Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto Op. 19, which, like Chopin’s, was written before his First Concerto. I’d love to hear your thoughts and approach toward this work.

Gerstein: Yes, absolutely. I think what’s so wonderful about the first two piano concertos is how Beethoven takes the model that he inherits from Mozart and Haydn, and with what daring and mischief, makes the form his own. Beethoven makes it much grander, even in the Second Concerto, which is considered lighter and smaller. It’s so irreverent, and Beethoven manages to be inventive, in terms of composition, in terms of the way it’s scored for the piano. There is a lot of humor in this concerto, in spite of the popular view of Beethoven, the dramatic shaking of his fist against fate. So there is definitely a great sense of comedic timing in the Rondo and in the Allegro con brio.

There is so much owed to the Italian operatic tradition in the second movement, the way it was passed to Beethoven from Salieri. There’s a very operatic treatment of the Adagio, which is really quite spectacular. It’s an early piece, but it jumps into the masterpiece category, not unlike his Op. 1 Trios and his earliest Piano Sonatas, Op. 2. It’s the classical style, but it’s immediately Beethoven’s own language, and a commentary on the style of Haydn. This concerto is bigger, conceptually and psychologically. So I think all these things are present under the feeling of a lighter cover. It’s a very fun piece with lots of sudden humor, but it stands for big things already, a harbinger of things to come. I don’t find it any less important than his later pieces, and I’m certainly delighted that we’re performing this with the San Francisco Symphony.

EH: Kirill, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. Best of luck this week in San Francisco.

Gerstein: Thank you, Elijah. I enjoyed speaking with you!

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