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Gerstein Dilates on Pianos and Sensibility


KirillGerstein016According to Russian-American-German pianist Kirill Gerstein, “The idea in choosing my Celebrity Series program for Friday at Jordan Hall, was to juxtapose Schumann’s Carnaval and Mussorgsky’s Pictures because, one would say, there is a certain picturesque element present in both pieces—but it’s much more so imaginary pictures. In the case of Mussorgsky we have the paintings that he actually used as a departure point, but it’s very much only a departure point. I think the movements are a much more general comment on Russian life and on the emotions that the painting provoked in him rather than descriptive pictures. Even more so are the imaginary pictures in Schumann’s Carnaval, where he truly paints a musical portrait of real and imaginary friends. There are Florestan and Eusebius which are sides of his personality as he matched them, and then there are real people such as Chopin and Paganini and Clara Schumann. So that was the impetus for the program, to juxtapose those two works. I find that there are some similarities in the wildness of spirit between Schumann and Mussorgsky. Both were incredibly imaginative and did not fit into an academic school, in their own different ways. I think you could say that the unifying element in the entire program is that all the pieces are non-academic in the sense that the spirit of imagination runs active and wild. I think that’s the case with Haydn even though the piece is called variations and written in a traditional form, the variations themselves are quite daring. And the same goes for the new piece by Timothy Andres.

BMInt: I remember when you used come all the time and practice at the Harvard Musical Association. You must have been in high school then.

Gerstein: I never went to high school… I was a college student at Berklee from the age of fourteen, so I actually skipped high school.

What I recall is that you were practicing a lot at Harvard Musical Association. Can you remember why you were there so often? Incidentally, you were in great company; Elliott Carter, Yo Yo Ma and many others used to practice there.

When we came over from Russia, we had a piano from a local piano shop which was kindly given to us, but it was a small upright. The upright pianos don’t have the right sound, or more importantly, the right action for true practicing. I think it was one of the faculty members from Berklee, John Bavicchi [composer/member of HMA], who was my theory and analysis teacher for classical music, who had made the connection with Harvard Musical Association. I was grateful for the use of their very good pianos.

I didn’t realize that you studied both classical and jazz at Berklee.

Yes, this is kind of the well-kept secret. It’s not something that people know very well, but Berklee, as far as analysis and composition, really had great offerings, especially when I was going there. I think they’ve since expanded and there’s also more classical performance, but the theory and analysis classes were great. Particularly early chamber music. Bavicchi had classes in the Bartok string quartets, and Beethoven quartets. There were excellent offerings

I remember when you won the high school award at Harvard Musical Association. At that point you were about to go to Manhattan School of Music. You couldn’t decide whether it was going to be jazz or classical for you. Was there a moment when you thought you couldn’t do both, and you had to make a decision?

I had always done both since early childhood, and I felt that by the age of 16 and so, that I had to make a choice because I could see going myself down either pathway. But I felt that there just wasn’t enough time to do both with the level of commitment that I expected of myself and the demands of each musical style. I had done a lot of jazz playing and a lot of jazz studying in those Boston years and classical was a bit lighter at the time, in terms of my occupation with it, and I felt that I had to make a long term decision. I decided that studying and performing the works of Beethoven, Bach and Rachmaninoff was the most inviting. So that was the background of the decision. I went to Manhattan School of Music in New York first and finished my studies there in 2000, and then I went to Spain to study with a very famous Russian teacher, [Dmitri] Bashkirov, in a small private music school. Then I studied at a piano academy in Italy with small number of teachers, and then  Budapest with a very well-known musician.

Does your jazz sensibility come in to your classical playing at all? Is there any overlap?

Yes, definitely one informs the other. I don’t think that one can successfully define what or how with a satisfying degree of specificity, but something about the harmonic sense and the sense of rhythmic timing, and quite importantly the experience of knowing that music doesn’t necessarily come from the printed dots on the page, but everywhere, all around us. Certainly my jazz background helps enrich whatever I do musically, including playing classical repertoire.

Do you think that rubato and swing mean the same thing?

I don’t think they’re the same thing, but they’re certainly related. There’s only so much that one can do with timing. Both require the sensibility of time and a certain symmetry of time in music. Rubato is really a questionable term, because translated it means free, and you have to ask “free from what?” You’re fairly stuck.

It can be free from the bar line.

I don’t think the bar line is a graphical representation of something. It is not of a particular importance. I don’t think the listener is concerned with the bars.

Well the bars regulate the pulse to some extent.

Yes and no. They outline a certain metrical division of a group pulses, but again, it’s only a very vague point of reference. I think that’s not a very crucial element.

What about classical music composers who are themselves jazz-inflected. Are there some that you’re interested in?

Of course. Starting with Gershwin, but not only him. Since winning the Gilmore Award, I’ve used some of the money to commission new music, and one of my ideas was to commission not only strictly classical composers, but also to have great jazz personalities put down some of their thoughts in writing, so to say. For instance, I play a piece by Brad Mehldau, who’s a great jazz pianist and a great musician in my opinion. He’s written a very large scale, 26-27 minute, set of variations that mixes and integrates all sorts of musical influences. He employs jazz language and his European classical language, honky-tonk, and boogie woogie, and everything in between. Chick Correa wrote a piece for me, as did Gary Burton—both involve notes on a page and improvisation.

Do you often play jazz-inflected encores?

Sometimes as little surprises.  Have a listen to “Summertime” that I did with a wonderful singer Storm Large as an encore at the Oregon Symphony in Portland. They were very surprised because they didn’t know that was going to happen.

You’re something of a collector of pianos. What do you collect and why?

Well, “collector” is a dangerous label to be used for pianists.  I’m just a pianist that likes pianos, and I’m always tempted to acquire one or another, but I’ve done very well resisting in the last years. My main piano is a Steinway B that I bought new in Hamburg. It was kind of ‘love at first sight.’ I was helping someone select a concert grand and of course I had to play all the pianos that were in the room. This one piano was absolutely striking, absolutely different for all the other pianos in the room. At first I tried to resist and not buy it, but then it was sent to a piano shop in Freiburg where I lived at the time. I would go in to the shop and play every week. The piano was on display with the numbers covered, standing next to several similar pianos. But I knew after a minute that this was that same piano that was so wonderful. So it became my friend. I also have a unique piano—a double keyboard Bechstein—set up in the same way as a double keyboard harpsichord, with the possibility of the two keyboards accompanying each other so they play in octaves. The piano was an experiment in the 30s by Bechstein, and they only built 16 of them, but after a long internet search I found one in a garage in Florida. I convinced the person to sell it to me and had it restored. It’s a beautiful and interesting member of the piano family. Then I have the same kind of upright that Chopin preferred; a little upright by Pleyel from 1848, so it’s more or less a contemporary of Chopin. Mostly everything is original.

That’s still considered a modern piano in the sense that it has an iron frame.

Well, the Pleyel upright actually has sort of an iron hoop for the bass area of the piano, it doesn’t have a full iron frame, so it’s somewhere in between a fortepiano of the 1820s and more or less a modern sounding instrument, or closer to one sounding from the 1870s….

Do you play early pianos in public?

Not yet, but it is something that I expect to get into because the area fascinates me more and more, especially for composers like Beethoven. It’s a very inspiring sound world, a very different one, and most interesting to me is that once I experience the feel and sound of an early piano, and how it all works together,  I can translate that to a modern piano as well. It is very much an enriching experience.

So have you played in the collections of various museums? Is that how you’ve been exposed to these earlier pianos?

Yes, you know, the instrument here and there, I’m always trying. In the school in Stuttgart where I teach, we have some of them. They’re more popular now than they were some years ago. It’s very tempting to try to acquire one of those.

How would you pick just one?

In the end you have to pick one. I think if I were to get a historical piano, I would get one from the period or a modern copy, of which there are very good ones made.  I would go for something from the 1820s in the Viennese style that would be suitable for Beethoven and Schubert. But then of course you could talk about a five-octave (Mozart) piano. But I think my point of intrigue, if I had to pick, would be still the 1820s Beethoven style piano.

Have you ever been to the Frederick Collection out in the western part of Massachusetts?

No, but I have always wanted to go there. Actually when I was restoring the Pleyel, I spoke to them and they gave me a good address of somebody that takes care of the hammers (in Paris). But I haven’t had the chance to go there yet.

Do you do any voicing and regulating of your own instruments?

Yes, I learned regulation at a piano shop for several months, so I am able to do it myself. But I prefer to leave these things to the professionals. Just as I specialize in playing the piano, there are people who specialize in regulating the piano. I know something about the process, but I would do it myself only in the event of an emergency. But learning the mechanics of the piano has helped me to communicate with the tuner in a way that is very direct and clear. So I don’t say “I don’t like how this piano feels” or “how this piano sounds.” I can be very specific and say “I’d like this to be adjusted by one millimeter distance.” Maybe some tuners are a bit put off by this, but mostly they appreciate that I know and can express what I want. I know the limits of the instrument and when to stop demanding something from them. That’s a relief to them. On the other hand, sometimes because of the knowledge I know that more can be done and I push for that.

Kirill Gerstein (Sasha  Gusov photo)
Kirill Gerstein (Sasha Gusov photo)

So have you chosen an instrument for Boston yet?

Not yet. I sort of remember the two or three pianos in Jordan Hall from the last time I played there a bit over a year ago, after my BSO concert. I will try them again because a lot can happen to a piano in 12 or 14 months.

Especially at a conservatory.


I think there are very good examples of American and German Steinways at NEC. I’m sure you’ll be pleased with one or the other.

Friday, January 31, 2014
8pm — NEC’s Jordan Hall

HAYDN: Variations in F minor
SCHUMANN: Carnaval
TIMOTHY ANDRES: Old Friend (Boston premiere)
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition


Download a PDF of the program notes

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