Former Mikowsky student wins Gilmore and Avery Fisher Artist Awards
Listen to Tchaikovsky, Stripped Down to His Intentions
Think you know Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1? Think again.
It’s one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire. But the pianist Kirill Gerstein, as inquisitive as he is talented, argues that what we commonly hear is an overly ostentatious misrepresentation, tarted up after Tchaikovsky’s death.
From Thursday through Feb. 7 with the New York Philharmonic, Mr. Gerstein plays a new critical edition, more delicate and less grandiose. Based on an 1879 version, it has among its sources Tchaikovsky’s own conducting score, which he used in a St. Petersburg concert nine days before his death in 1893. It is therefore closer to the music performed at Carnegie Hall’s opening week in 1891 than anything heard by New Yorkers since. Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Gerstein.
Most music lovers would be surprised to hear that such a well-known work isn’t quite what we think it is.
I liken it to those iconic paintings that go to a museum restoration shop. It’s like in a portrait: a wrinkle here, no wrinkle there, an eyebrow tilted in a slightly different way. For anyone who has anxiety, it’s still very much the Tchaikovsky concerto we love, but it perhaps has a different facial expression than we are used to.
How did the usual edition come about?
There’s a tragedy, especially in Russian culture, of geniuses surrounded by less talented well-wishers. Tchaikovsky was one of those, where certain people in his circle — in this case Alexander Siloti, his student and an uncle of Rachmaninoff — thought they knew better. Siloti had been in Europe and studied with Liszt. His tendency toward the superficially brilliant, and some of the traits of 19th-century pianism that are less noble than the tradition generally is in its best manifestations, resulted in these posthumous editorial changes.
Some people like to eat organic food — that’s Tchaikovsky’s version — and some people like to eat everything with sprinkles of MSG. That’s fine, as long as you know that what you’re sprinkling is monosodium glutamate. So if one wants to play Tchaikovsky-Siloti, do that. I think it’s better to do what the composer himself wrote.
Do these changes fundamentally alter the character of the piece, or are they just refinements?
A bit of both. When you take it all together, there are maybe four, five significant changes and about 150, 160 minor discrepancies of articulation and dynamic indications in various orchestra parts, as well as in the piano part.
What it suggests is a fresh look at how the piece is interpreted. Some skeptic might say that the percentage of the notes that are different is probably less than 1 percent, so what’s the big deal? It gives us a chance to revisit something for sincere musical interest, something that is so often relegated to being an old war horse, and frankly not taken seriously enough because the criticism is that it’s so bombastic. It may be better than we are used to. I do find that in all the cases where there is a discrepancy, what the composer wrote is more suitable and fitting to the musical content, to the general poetry of the piece.
Perhaps the most shocking thing is that the famous opening chords are now rolled.
Absolutely. When you enter this great building, if we compare it to a building, not through this pompous entrance but with something clearly more lyrical and less blaring, it obviously casts a different shadow on what follows.
What’s interesting is that so many other things come into focus. Finally the dynamics that Tchaikovsky indicates in the orchestral melody make sense. Usually the pianist enters with these chords as powerfully as he can, to show that he’s got the goods, and the orchestra immediately responds. It’s like a Cold War escalates in the first measures. Now, since the chords are rolled and arpeggiated, one can arpeggiate quicker or slower, and help the flow of the melody in a much more flexible style than what one hears when these chords are symmetrically crashing.
In the usual version, I was always surprised when these big crashing chords suddenly do switch into arpeggios a few measures later. Was he not a good enough composer that he couldn’t figure out how to continue with these block chords, if that’s what he wanted? Years later, I find out that that’s where the editor made the cut back to Tchaikovsky’s own version.
Is there another major change you would pick out?
The one that’s obvious is that in the third movement there is this middle section. We have about 45 seconds of usually unheard music — incidentally, very adventurous harmonically and contrapuntally.
My feeling has always been that it seems like an odd decision, that Tchaikovsky goes into this different mood, and stays in it for 20 seconds, and then he’s back to the previous mood. But it turns out this is a section that’s longer, and so we’re in this mood longer. The third movement really then acquires a more balanced structure.
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What a probing and lucid explanation of your point of contention regarding the F versus the Bb. I thank Daniela for bringing it to my attention as I share it with students and with those I know will derive great satisfaction from experiencing the depth of your intellect and the verbal resources at your disposal to bring your point across. I am particularly pleased with your lucid emphasis on the role that cultural backgrounds (German versus Russian) can play in a musician's intuition as to what might be right or wrong. It is indeed a "happy ending" to the story! Trusting Tschaikowsky's musical intuition provides the best outcome!
Just to satisfy my curiosity, I wonder what your decision would be had you found out that Stephen Hough was right! Which note would you play? There have been many cases where great performers have made changes in a score, including specific notes, establishing traditions that depart from a composer's manuscript. Imagine those performers explaining their rationale almost as lucidly and convincingly as you have presented yours (Tschaikowsky's). Would you let your taste and musical intuition decide or would you follow the composer's intentions, regardless?
I am looking forward to listening to those old recordings you list in the article. We must always consider the performance practice and styles of artists that lived closer in time to the composers dates.
I am looking forward to your next performance of this concerto! Are you going to caress the F with a special accent so that the audience can hear it vividly? I hope Stephen Hough will be in the audience! Make him change his mind!
Big hug with much pride!
Pianist Attempts to Rescue Rachmaninoff
Kirill Gerstein's Interpretation of the Russian Composer
By CORINNE RAMEY
Oct. 17, 2013 10:30 p.m. ET
Among the classical music cognoscenti, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff has a certain reputation: gushy and opulent, certainly not serious—an old-fashioned romantic who never caught up to the modernism of the 20th century. Pianist (and super-fan) Kirill Gerstein said this isn't the composer's fault, but that of his interpreters.
"There are a lot of performances that are, let's say, uh, very indulgent," Mr. Gerstein said.
When asked to explain "indulgent," he replied: "Well, I'm being polite. There are performances that make him sound like a vodka-soaked Russian sailor."
This Thursday through Saturday, Mr. Gerstein brings his own interpretation of Rachmaninoff—restrained yet virtuosic, nearly classical, presumably nonalcoholic—to the composer's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," which he will perform with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov. This is Mr. Gerstein's subscription-series debut with the philharmonic; he previously played summer concerts with the orchestra in New York and Vail, Colo.
Mr. Gerstein has big shoes—or rather, hands, as Rachmaninoff's spanned an octave and a half—to fill; the philharmonic's first performance of the piece was with the composer himself as soloist, at Carnegie Hall in 1934. ("The composition is very difficult, and I should start practicing it," Rachmaninoff wrote.)
The other day, Mr. Gerstein stopped by the building where Rachmaninoff lived from 1926 to 1934, on the corner of West End and 84th Street. After a doorman informed some visitors that, yes, people do occasionally stop by to ask about the composer but, no, he doesn't know the apartment number, Mr. Gerstein headed to a nearby coffee shop to extol the virtues of the man he views as underappreciated and misunderstood.
A treasure trove of information about Rachmaninoff can be found in recordings of the composer playing his own music, Mr. Gerstein said.
"As I revisit these recordings, every year Rachmaninoff plays better and better," he said, laughing. "Which means that every year my own development makes me understand how incredibly good his playing is."
Mr. Gerstein talks about interpreting Rachmaninoff in phrases associated with Mozart: classicism, sense of control, restraint. (Granted, these traits are coupled with "some of the hottest music.")
"When the performance is transparent, when its classicist roots are clear, and yet there is this so-called quote unquote Russian sound, then it's quite clear that he's really a great composer," Mr. Gerstein said.
He said Rachmaninoff's aura is ever-present in the cultural ether in Russia, where Mr. Gerstein, who is 33, was born. He took a detour into the jazz world—he moved to the U.S. at age 14, to study at Boston's Berklee College of Music—but eventually came back to classical music. These days, he splits his time between New York and Stuttgart, Germany, when not on the road.
If Mr. Gerstein were to have met Rachmaninoff, what would he have said?
"I think I'd be happy just to be in his presence, just to feel his strong magnetism," said Mr. Gerstein, who had been talking about the composer with such nonstop vigor that a companion occasionally reminded him to pause and take a bite of a grilled-cheese sandwich. "I'm not sure it would be so necessary to talk."
Thomas Adčs led the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall.
Most Boston Symphony Orchestra guest conductors come and go discreetly these days, but Thomas Adčs arrived this week a bit like a one-man weather system. On Thursday night, the supremely gifted British composer-conductor-pianist led the first of three performances of a program featuring his own Genesis-inspired piano concerto alongside music of Prokofiev and Sibelius. On Saturday, he’ll conduct his opera “The Tempest” at the Met before leading the evening BSO performance in Symphony Hall. Then on Sunday, for his day of rest, he’ll make a cameo at the Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert to perform the piano four-hands arrangement of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” alongside this week’s BSO soloist, the excellent Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein.
If this kind of week brings any trepidation for Adčs, it was nowhere in evidence at Thursday night’s generously expansive program, which seemed to have a rare thoughtfulness of conception behind it. Building from his own creation-themed piano work “In Seven Days,” Adčs reached out along two axes — toward another creation myth (Sibelius’s mysterious and coolly beautiful tone poem “Luonnotar”) and toward another primally inventive piano concerto from a century ago (Prokofiev’s First). Then the evening ended with Sibelius’s fascinating Sixth Symphony, in a texturally rich, organically drawn performance that seemed to enclose the night in its own elusive poetry.
Opening the evening, Dawn Upshaw was the soloist in “Luonnotar,” its text taken from the Finnish Kalevala epic, relating a strange tale of a wandering goddess who gives birth to the world from the sea. Some singers allow the story to remain on the level of suggestive archaic myth, but Upshaw expertly rendered the solo line with both gleaming tone and a sense of palpable emotional investment.
Adčs’s “In Seven Days” takes a more granular, street-level view of the birth of the world, distributing the seven days from the Genesis story into seven teeming movements, inspired more metaphorically than pictorially by the events they describe (”Chaos-Dark-Light,” “Separation of the waters into sea and sky,” etc.) A circular path is implied by the use of a passacaglia-like form, with the music at the end sending us back to the beginning, but the effect is still more of spiraling forward than any kind of eternal recurrence. Adčs also plays ingeniously with layering music of multiple speeds, with the soloist and portions of the orchestra moving in and out of sync, passing each other like cars in different lanes on a highway. Like so much of Adčs’s music, there is here both intellectual rigor and a sensuality connected with the mercurial surfaces of sound itself. As soloist, Gerstein (reading the score from an iPad assisted by a foot pedal) gave a rhythmically deft, wonderfully rhapsodic account of the solo line.
He was equally impressive in Prokofiev’s brashly virtuosic First Piano Concerto, a work once seen as thumbing its nose at older Romantic sensibilities. Adčs seemed to have a sassy, proudly postmodern take on this early modern score, and Gerstein’s playing had all the aggressive machine-tooled precision and sonic bite the piece requires, together with a suppleness of rhythm that made the performance feel less like interpretation than, well, creation.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.
ARTS & LEISURE Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen (excerpt)
BY ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Russia has given us Kirill Gerstein, born in 1979, the latest recipient of the distinguished Gilmore Artist Award, whose extraordinary recording of the Liszt Sonata, Schumann’s mercurial “Humoreske” and a fanciful piece by Oliver Knussen on Myrios Classics was one of the best recordings of 2010. In June Mr. Gerstein made his New York Philharmonic debut at a Summertime Classics concert with a boldly interpreted and brilliant account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. But don’t let his probing musicianship distract you. He is another of those younger technicians who have figured out everything about piano playing.
Concert review: A night of fine Russian chemistry from Toronto Symphony and Kirill Gerstein
Kirill Gerstein performs with the Toronto Symphony and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero on Wednesday at Roy Thomson Hall (Josh Clavir photo).
Familiar favourites sell concert tickets. But as I sat listening to an uncommonly fine performance on Wednesday by Kirill Gerstein, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the Toronto Symphopny of the most familiar of piano concertos — Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky's First — I wondered: Were people appreciating the unfamiliar in this interpretation?
The Roy Thomson Hall audience was warmly appreciative of Gerstein's easy virtuosity and lyrical playing. He made this old warhorse sound fresh and full of life.
Most special to my ears was the exact compatibility between orchestra and soloist, something not even the finest and most seasoned performers can take for granted. Guerrero and Gerstein were on the same page, and it added an extra bit of chemistry to the already fine musicmaking.
Tchaikovsky's Concerto dates from 1875, and is both a vehicle for the virtuoso pianist and an emblem of Romantic-era expression in music. We go home humming the melodies, but it's really in the details under the melodies where the music comes to life. This is where it can soar, or sink.
Gerstein held up his end of the bargain with an overall sparkle that, once lit by the crashing chords that open the piece, crackled away until the finale. Guerrero goosed and coaxed the Toronto Symphony players into following suit, and I heard things I'd never heard before, including some gentle dancing in the second movement.
It is the search for this sort of interpretation that keeps me coming back to the concert hall week after week.
Wednesday's programme was a short Toronto Symphony Afterworks affair, beginning at 6:30 p.m. and ending less than 90 minutes later. The orchestra players arrived on stage in their more casual attire — plain black shirts, trousers and dresses. Patrons could bring a drink along to their seat, and CBC Radio's Tom Allen was our breezy, witty host.
It was all so very howyadoin? casual, but the artistry on display was as serious as could be.
Wednesday's companion piece was the Russian Easter Festival Overture by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It's a bit of a sprawl that tries to pick up momentum, but keeps bogging down. It's not the world's finest composition, but it is a fabulous showcase of an orchestra's — and a conductor's — abilities.
It was a treat to see and hear Guerrero in charge of such a tight, beautifully balanced ensemble.
These two Russian pieces repeat on Thursday and Saturday nights alongside the 1943 Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók — truly a symphonic showpiece. Given what we heard on Wednesday night, this should be one of the highlights of the season.
Note that Kirill Gerstein, one of the great young pianists of the day, returns to Toronto on Dec. 8 for a solo recital at Koerner Hall that showcases both his jazz as well as classical backgrounds. Details here.
20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Pianist Kirill Gerstein
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
By Albert Imperato
Kirill Gerstein, recently named the sixth recipient of the Gilmore Artist Award, took time to lend his thoughts to our question and answer series. The young dynamo will make his Boston Symphony debut on July 30 at the Tanglewood Festival.
One of today’s most intriguing young musicians, Kirill Gerstein was named the sixth recipient of the Gilmore Artist Award in January 2010. This prestigious award – described by the New York Times as “music’s answer to the MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grants’ – is given every four years to a pianist of exceptional ability and profound musicianship who is deemed capable of sustaining a prominent international career. As the Boston Globe affirms, the Russian-born pianist is “on the fast track to a major career, and he deserves to be.”
Born in 1979 in Voronezh, Russia, Gerstein attended one of the country’s special music schools for gifted children and taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection. He came to the U.S. at 14 to continue his jazz piano studies as the youngest student ever to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music, before turning his focus to classical music, first at the Manhattan School of Music with Solomon Mikowsky, and then with Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and Ferenc Rados in Budapest. Besides the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award, Gerstein was awarded First Prize at the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, received a 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award, and was chosen as Carnegie Hall’s “Rising Star” for the 2005-06 season. Most recently, he was a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant. He became an American citizen in 2003 and is currently a professor of piano at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart.
Following a season that included his debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Gerstein will make his debut with the Boston Symphony on July 30 at the Tanglewood Festival.
1. A few works of classical music that you adore:
Rachmaninoff Vespers; Schubert Octet; Bach Orchestral Suites (well most Bach actually) 2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:
Busoni's acoustic recordings; Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata with Bartók and Szigeti; Rachmaninoff’s piano recordings – 10 CDs on RCA – the best $99 I spent on recordings. 3. Favorite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:
Brad Mehldau Places; Sting’s Dowland recording is fantastic; Keith Jarrett; Chick Corea; Oscar Peterson; Ella Fitzgerald; Prince; Miles Davis 4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:
Music triggers many deep emotions in me – crying as a response to these emotions usually is not the outlet my body chooses. 5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):
Busoni, Haydn and Schubert. Yes, Haydn and Schubert I think are even MORE astounding than often thought. Liszt is not taken as seriously as he ought to be. And many more… I'd need to have more space to defend my favorites. But then comes my question: "underrated by WHOM??" 6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):
I think each piece has a certain number of hearings in it (ok, for some pieces if it lies in single-digit numbers). So, I'd equate overrated with overplayed. 7. Live music performance (s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:
Radu Lupu playing Brahms 1 at opening of Carnegie’s season with CSO and Barenboim five or six years ago; Grigory Sokolov's recital with Baroque keyboard music; Steven Isserlis' Schubert Arpeggione in Verbier; Andras Schiff's Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in Salzburg. Also, live bands playing Gypsy music in Budapest and a glass harmonica virtuoso on a street in Vienna. 8. A few relatively recent films you love:
I watch most of my movies on the airplane. A bit like fast food for the mind, paired to airplane food for the body. Inglorious Bastards is bold and provocative; I had fun watching the new Sherlock Holmes movie. And I can't wait to see Pianomania – a new German documentary film about a piano tuner. 9. A few films you consider classics:
I am not a film aficionado – I usually watch to be entertained. Provocation that "classics" provide, I get elsewhere… 10. A few books that are important to you (and why):
Miguel de Unamuno: The Tragic Sense of Life – I think it’s such an honest and yet believing look at life and religion and the necessity of belief. I love E.T.A. Hoffmann's fantastical world and find his moods very musical. Rilke's poetry always moves me. 11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:
Of being able to learn and develop. 12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:
That I can't dance (unless I drink enough and then either I am not embarrassed or I can dance…) 13. Three things you can’t live without:
Music, food and beverages, blackberry 14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”
Play the piano 15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”
Studied Jazz 16. “My favorite cities are…”
New York, Vienna, Budapest, Sydney, Tel Aviv 17. “I have a secret crush on…”
I don't have one. 18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”
I don’t feel guilty for my pleasures, but I do feel guilty for not getting up as early as I planned to every morning. 19. “I’d really love to meet…”
Brad Mehldau, John Stewart and Sarah Silverman 20. “I never understood why…”
Piano benches don't have an indication of the direction you are adjusting them in – up or down is always the question…
BONUS QUESTION: 21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):
Q: Shall I turn you in to a hazelnut?
A: No, thanks
Gerstein's Winning Ways
By STUART ISACOFF
May 27, 2010
'Let the sky rain potatoes," declared Shakespeare's Falstaff, bidding the gods to shower him with fertility and good fortune. These days, he might simply have asked for greenbacks. But if he were a pianist, the request would likely be for a Gilmore Award—a prize worth $300,000 and given to a pianist every four years by a secret jury that assesses candidates without their knowledge.
Such riches don't normally fall from the sky. But for Kirill Gerstein, age 30, it might seem that way. In January, he was announced as this year's Gilmore winner. Then in April, Lincoln Center conferred its prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, worth $25,000. For a pianist with less than marquee status, it was a jackpot of huge proportions.
Not that he was completely unknown. Back in 2002, the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich., had given him its "Young Artist" Award, in recognition of promising talent (he is the first to have been honored in both Gilmore categories). The year before, he had earned top prize in the Arthur Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv. And in the 2005-06 season, he was named a "Rising Star" by Carnegie Hall. But his recent double win in Kalamazoo and New York has placed him in the major leagues. And it invites curiosity about just how good he is.
The journey has been interesting, and not always easy. Born in 1979 in Voronezh, a Russian town about 300 miles to the south of Moscow, he claims that his mother, a teacher specializing in the musical development of young children, used him to test her theories. "Music emerges from the fog of nonremembering for me," he says, by way of explaining that he has no recollection of a time without it. Even at the age of 3, there was ear training, learning notation, singing and playing piano—"formatting my young brain for those relationships that are now for me as natural as breathing. When I hear a note," reports Mr. Gerstein, "I see its name, where it is on the keyboard, where it is on the music staff—it's an instantaneous link."
Yet he wasn't at all certain that he wanted to be a pianist. "I read a lot," he remembers of his youth. "I didn't feel confined to the instrument." Then he met a teacher who spurred his enthusiasm for the piano with new ideas about playing and practicing. He was 10.
The real adventure began at 11, when he won a Bach competition in Poland. He had been tinkering with jazz improvisation, so officials took him to a jazz club and later encouraged him to attend some workshops given by faculty members of Boston's Berklee School of Music (in the workshops, "I was 12, and everyone else was in their 20s," he remarks). When the school's vice president, vibraphonist Gary Burton, performed in St. Petersburg, Mr. Gerstein served as his interpreter.
"The next time I went to Poland for a jazz workshop," Mr. Gerstein remembers, "I was asked why I hadn't answered Gary Burton, who wrote three times inviting me to Berklee. Well, I hadn't received any of his letters; they had conveniently disappeared. Apparently, someone in Russia thought it wasn't right for me." Finally, in 1993, Berklee offered him a full scholarship, provided that one of his parents joined him in Boston. "My mother made the sacrifice. We had some financial help from combined Jewish philanthropies," he recalls, "but it was tough."
He worked intensely for three years before reaching a crossroads: "Did I want to continue learning how to be the on-the-spot inventor, or did I want to continue peering into Beethoven, Bach and Rachmaninoff, and things that they, as great improvisers, took a year of self-editing and torture to write down?" He chose the latter, studied with Solomon Mikowsky at the Manhattan School of Music, then pursued additional lessons with Alexis Weissenberg in Switzerland, Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and Ferenc Rados in Budapest. So the classics won out. But, he says, jazz has served him well. "The sense of timing, the enhanced attention to harmony—you hear things in a different way," he explains. "Through jazz you approach classical music with the sense that the score is not written in stone, but instead represents a symbolization of a certain possibility."
The results could be heard at the Gilmore's closing Gala Concert on May 8, when Mr. Gerstein presented both his "Russian side and jazzy upbringing" by performing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
As could be expected, Mr. Gerstein has a blazing technique, including a wonderful command of color and nuance, and he is a deep thinker. In some ways, however, those intellectual concerns seemed to lead him astray in the Tchaikovsky, which he views not as a roaring Romantic blockbuster, but as a work that belongs more to the Germanic tradition. Occasionally, in place of the expected sweep and grandeur, he lingered pensively over passages, exploring them at the expense of the work's forward impetus. In fairness, the Kalamazoo Symphony was not the best of partners—a greater sense of collaboration was needed to make this work. And perhaps Mr. Gerstein is really not so far off in his view of how the piece should be interpreted: it was, after all, given its premiere by Hans von Bülow, whose playing was so cerebral that one critic described him as a "musical refrigerator." The Gershwin was magnificent, with a sense of playfulness and stylistic flair seldom encountered. The evening was an undeniable success.
Following the concert, Mr. Gerstein was expecting to fly back the next day to Stuttgart, Germany, where he teaches at the Musikhochschule. Instead, due to a last-minute cancellation by former Gilmore winner Ingrid Fliter, Mr. Gerstein took the 7 a.m. flight to New York to serve as her replacement at Town Hall. He was well received. "Ah, youth," said someone associated with the festival. And talent.
Mr. Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music (SUNY).
Gilmore Winner Shows His Stripes
By George Loomis
May 7, 2010
KALAMAZOO, MI -- The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival always presents a cluster of the world's top pianists, but even the most starry among them yields pride of place when the event, held here every two years, follows the naming of a new Gilmore Artist Award winner. In January, Russian-born Kirill Gerstein became the sixth such winner in the festival's 20-year history. And on May 3, just past the current festival's midpoint, the general public was afforded a chance to measure its reactions against the decision makers when Gerstein played a solo recital in Chenery Auditorium. His interesting choice of repertoire and his searching playing supplied few, if any, grounds for dissension.
There was a bit of drama in the lead-up to the recital, in that Oliver Knussen was still putting the finishing touches on “Ophelia's Last Dance,” a Gilmore Festival commission, only days before its premiere. But he finished the six-minute piece just in time to e-mail the final pages to Gerstein several days before showtime.
Understandably, Gerstein played from the score for this alluring piece, which offers immediate melodic gratification along with a more serious musical undercurrent. After a gentle Impressionistic preface stressing the piano's upper register, the principal theme is presented—a flowing theme in even notes that sounds a bit like a Chopin waltz spiced with Prokofiev melodic inflections and shifting meters. A middle section brings thicker textures, fragmentation and forthright dissonance. The return leads to an unobtrusive coda and a rather abrupt ending. Gerstein played the theme with a beguiling fluency but also ensured that the piece's more forbidding elements registered with due expressivity.
Schumann's Humoreske, in B flat, Op. 20, also has a kind of two-sidedness as it darts from dreamy lyricism to virtuosic turbulence. Both aspects were brilliantly caught by Gerstein, right from the opening melody, which he projected with songfulness and an affecting sense of rumination. Here and in similar passages you sometimes sensed that he was playing just for himself, oblivious to the presence of an audience. Bravura passages flew by excitingly but also with a clarity born of a remarkable ear for textural balance. Gerstein made it a treat to hear this infrequently played work.
The pianist is apparently a big fan of Busoni and offered two of the composer’s so-called sonatinas, No. 5 brevis “in signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni” and No. 6 super “Carmen” (“Carmen” Fantasy). The pre-existent material of each is utterly different—themes from Bach's Keyboard Fantasy and Fugue in D minor and Bizet's “Carmen,” respectively—but the treatment is much the same. Sometimes the source is presented relatively straight, sometimes it is coupled with Late Romantic or dissonant harmonies, sometimes it serves simply as the basis for free creative flights by Busoni. Gerstein emphasized the artistic validity of all three approaches by giving them equal interpretive weight. The Bach sonatina in particular had a dreamy, even improvisatory quality, which was established in the prelude and also colored the beginning of the fugue. Again, overt showmanship was virtually nil, even though technical challenges—deftly surmounted—came early and often.
The only well known item on the program was Liszt's Sonata in B minor, and it was played with interpretive depth and remarkable polish. All three of the principal themes were compellingly handled. The big theme in octaves was incisively stated yet without undue percussiveness. The other big theme, with chordal accompaniment, was sonorous and ardent. And the poignant lyrical theme, which begins with repeated notes, sang out exquisitely. Gerstein's command of the piece's architecture was sure as ideas flowed logically from one to the next. And he showed an almost limitless capacity to achieve nuanced shading and coloristic effects. One example of his remarkable finger control came at the very end, when each of the five closing chords, marked pianissimo, emerged perfectly voiced and with its own character.
The 1,900-seat Chenery Auditorium, a recently restored gem dating from 1924, is located in what once was Kalamazoo's Central High School, suggesting that old schools, like old movie theaters, may be places to look for treasurable classical music venues.
Like the MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards, the Gilmore Artist Award is supposed to come out of the blue. A six-person artistic advisory committee, whose members and operations are kept secret until the award is announced, makes the decision after an exhaustive evaluation process that includes listening to CDs (preferably of live performances) and surreptitiously attending concerts.
Where MacArthur winners are free to take the money and pursue a lifestyle of their choosing (including a reclusive one that may have helped them win the prize in the first place) the Gilmore wants its winner out there on the concert stage. The ideal recipient is “an exceptional pianist who, regardless of age or nationality, possesses broad and profound musicianship and charisma and who desires and can sustain a career as a major international concert artist.” The Gilmore Award brings a cash prize of $300,000, $250,000 of which is to be spent, with the Gilmore's approval, on projects that advance the winner's career, and the rest as he or she chooses.
Despite the absence of an age limit, then, the preferred Gilmore winner will be someone who looks destined for a big career but is not there yet, which means that it is likely to come at a particular point in his or her development. The Gilmore scored handily with prior winners Leif Ove Andsnes (1998) and Piotr Anderszewski (2002), although there were rumblings that Andsnes’ career was already well along when he won, even if he was only 28. Ingrid Fliter (2006) may be on track to join her illustrious predecessors in the international arena. The two earlier winners, David Owen Norris (1991) and Ralf Gothóni (1994), for what ever reasons, personal choice among them, took different career paths.
Gerstein, 30, has already had a number of notable successes but is no household name. He took first prize at the Artur Rubinstein Competition in 2001, won a Gilmore Young Artists Award in 2002, was named Carnegie Hall's “rising star” for 2005-06, and has played with leading orchestras and at leading festivals. He has the credentials the Gilmore wants. From all appearances, he is both worthy of the award and someone who can benefit from it. I look forward to hearing him again.
The artistic advisory committee that chose Gerstein consisted of Daniel Gustin, director of the Gilmore Festival, plus Curtis Price, Don Michael Randel, Ann Schein, Matias Tarnopolsky and Sherman van Solkema.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Mellon and Fisher Grants Awarded
Compiled by RACHEL LEE HARRIS
The Play Company, an Off Broadway troupe dedicated to producing new writing for the stage, has been awarded a $135,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Producers said in a statement that the money, to be dispersed over three years, would help maintain the company’s artistic initiatives as well as support its cash reserves. The Play Company, now in its 10th season, recently concluded a run of Toshiki Okada’s “Enjoy.” ... The violist David Aaron Carpenter and the pianists Kirill Gerstein, Yuja Wang and Joyce Yang have been selected to receive Career Grants from the Avery Fisher Artist Program. The honor comes with a stipend of $25,000 for each performer. The recipients were announced at a special event at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, at which Mr. Carpenter, Ms. Wang and Ms. Yang played. Their performances will be broadcast on WQXR-FM on May 12 at 9 p.m. Mr. Gerstein was unable to participate because of a previously scheduled performance.
Dutoit's steady hand keeps Russian epic in check
March 6, 2010
Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 ("The Year 1905") is a programmatic symphony evoking a massacre of unarmed workers by soldiers in czarist St. Petersburg in that year, a key event in modern Russian history. It has always divided the composer's admirers. Is it an artifact of socialist realism designed to suck up to the Soviet cultural apparatchiks? A coded indictment of Stalinist tyranny? A film score without the film? Or is it something deeper and more complex?
I'm not convinced that guest conductor Charles Dutoit set out to argue any single point of view in his gripping performance of the hourlong work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Orchestra Hall. He seemed to be telling the audience, in effect, that amid the flaws and fustian this sprawling symphonic epic contains some of Shostakovich's most powerful music, and here it is: You decide what it's really about.
Not for Dutoit the almost unbearable emotional identification and intensity the composer's friend and colleague Mstislav Rostropovich brought to the 11th Symphony during the CSO's Shostakovich Festival in 1999. But many roads lead to Rome, and Dutoit's steady, organizing hand was just the thing to keep this sometimes blatant and unruly music from going off the track.
His control of dynamics, tempo and structure was impressive from the start, where the music's frozen stillness carried an eerie expectancy. The abrupt leaps from the ferocious battle music of the second movement ("The Ninth of January") to the numbed quiet of the third ("Eternal Memory") were carefully controlled so that the music built and released tension organically, with no loss of momentum.
Too bad the rudely cough-happy crowd didn't reserve its hacking for the tumultuous finale ("The Alarm"), where it wouldn't have disrupted a thing.
The score is made to order for the CSO's pumped corporate musculature. The brass and percussion players dug into their parts for maximum sonic impact, and the deep tolling of a big Russian church bell really did sound like a tocsin. Scott Hostetler's English horn sang a poignant lament to quiet all the sound and fury that had preceded it.
There was more Russian music to begin the concert — Rachmaninov's ever-popular Second Piano Concerto, in a wonderfully impassioned performance by Kirill Gerstein, making his CSO subscription series debut.
One could tell just from the finely graded series of chords with which the work begins why the young Russian virtuoso won the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award for 2010. Gerstein handled them like a master, and they launched a reading of rhapsodic intensity and big-hearted Russian lyricism. He wowed the audience not by indulging in cheap tricks or self-regarding sensationalism but by treating this music seriously, like the splendid romantic masterpiece it is.
The outer movements were a feast of powerful chords, whirling runs and scintillating passage work that generated palpable excitement in the house. Even more impressive was the sensitivity with which the pianist spun the cantabile of the slow movement, applying plenty of rubato but always with a firm line to support it, in close dialogue with solo instruments like Gregory Smith's supple clarinet. The orchestral support was just as caring throughout, not least the dark-chocolate coloration supplied by principal oboe Eugene Izotov.
The CSO has released its Symphony Center Presents concert schedule for the 2010-11 season.
Orchestras visiting Orchestra Hall next season are the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev; the Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Most conducting; Yuri Temirkanov with his St. Petersburg Philharmonic; and the Orchestre National de France under Daniel Gatti.
Chamber music concerts will be given by the duo of violinist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Yefim Bronfman, and the trio of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and clarinetist Anthony McGill. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will perform a Russian song recital. Violist Yuri Bashmet and pianist Evgeny Kissin will team up for another duo recital, and a vocal quartet led by baritone Thomas Quasthoff will perform Brahms and Schumann.
The piano series will comprise recitals by Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Paul Lewis, Yuja Wang, Leif Ove Andsnes, Maurizio Pollini, Arnaldo Cohen and Kissin.
CSO: Gilmore pianist Gerstein's debut, Dutoit's steady hand in mixed Russian works
Saturday, 06 March 2010
Here is my Saturday March 6 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com review of the Thursday March 4, 2010 Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert with guest conductor Charles Dutoit and pianist Kirill Gerstein.
CSO Russian bill of mixed but popular works draws cheers, raises questions
New Gilmore Artist Gerstein makes his downtown subscription debut with veteran Dutoit
BY ANDREW PATNER
Repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.
There is music that is not truly great and yet is understandably loved by many concertgoers. Usually these works falls into one of two categories -- lyrical, tuneful pieces with virtuosic opportunities for soloists and bombastic sonic showcases. Much such music comes from Russia.
I can be a sucker for the first group. A great Rachmaninoff piano concerto played by a great pianist or a young artist on his or her way to greatness can be both a thrill and a cause for all manner of reverie and nostalgia. I’m a partisan of the Third Concerto, perhaps the last great throwback work of its kind: lush and moving, a marriage of killer melodies with thoroughbred-level keyboard racing, with no acknowledgment of the dramatic changes in the musical and cultural worlds around it. What must it have been like to hear its composer, one of history’s great pianists, play this with the New York Philharmonic and Gustav Mahler in 1910 when Mahler had already composed his entire catalog?
[Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein, left, gave a smashing performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night.]
Perhaps because of some tunes that were turned into various pop songs, it’s the C minor Second Concerto of 1900-01 that was the most popular for decades. Kirill Gerstein, 30, the 2010-13 Gilmore Artist, chose it for his Chicago Symphony Orchestra downtown subscription debut Thursday night. (He has played the Tchaikovsky First at Ravinia and chamber music at The University of Chicago Presents.)
A highly intellectual, Russian-born musician with training and experience in jazz as well as classical, Gerstein gave a performance that was constantly alive rhythmically and brilliantly exposed the phenomenal demands this half-hour work puts on a soloist. He kept it from becoming sappy and blended original insights with Rachmaninoff’s goals. Swiss guest conductor Charles Dutoit was, as is his wont, a perfect accompanist.
The Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 of 1957 is of the second category: sound and fury and mournfulness played endlessly for more than an hour, drawing cheers from fans of loud brass playing and percussion. It’s the classical equivalent of arena rock. With one difference. As Soviet music expert Gerard McBurney correctly writes in the program notes, this is a work, subtitled “The Year 1905,” that crystallizes Shostakovich’s two faces: official servant of the Communist Party leadership and signal waver to the dissident and oppressed in Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet society. It simultaneously commemorates the slaughter of innocent peasants by the Tsarist police in the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution, officially marks the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup in 1917, and on another level protests the oppression of the state.
One cannot deny the power that this piece must hold for those who lived through the tragedy of those years. But the work’s actual musical value has eluded even many Shostakovich boosters over the years. As he does with any large, complex score, Dutoit made the piece move and even seem logical and balanced. English horn Scott Hostetler won a well-deserved ovation, a battery of percussion -- including a bell to wake the dead -- was employed to the hilt, and even the violas got to take a section bow.
A further note on the Rachmaninoff: When a senior player is working through a crisis, respect and patience are appropriate. When several sections of the winds are without top leadership, however, you have an institutional problem. Soloists are entitled to proper support, and CSO audiences to playing at the highest level. If it had not been for the lead oboe and bassoon, the key wind contributions would have been a total disaster. It’s a further credit to the talented Gerstein that he seemed unfazed by the strange sounds that came his, and our, way.
Gilmore winner Gerstein makes electrifying CSO debut with Rachmaninoff
Fri Mar 05, 2010
By Bryant Manning
Kirill Gerstein, 2010 Gilmore Artist, made his CSO debut in music of Rachmaninoff Thursday.
It didn’t take long for Chicago to get on the touring radar of this year’s Gilmore Artist Award winner Kirill Gerstein, who received the prestigious quadrennial award in January. The Russian-American pianist, who divides his time between Massachusetts and Germany, joins an elite roster that includes Ingrid Fliter, Piotr Anderszewski and Leif Ove Andsnes. If the Gilmore can claim even an ounce of responsibility for those pianists’ astonishing successes, then things portend very well for the 30-year-old Gerstein.
His electrifying performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night seemed a proper Orchestra Hall christening, replete with all the virtuosic heroics a $300K pianist should have at the ready. The Chicago Symphony and guest conductor Charles Dutoit were his energized partners who would, on occasion, overpower him as in the first movement.
Technically awesome from start to finish, Gerstein delivered a mostly temperate account of the showstopping concerto. Tempos were snappy and the pianist kept a cool distance from Rachmaninoff’s heart-on-sleeve sentimentality. It was a refreshing change for once to allow the music’s pathos to emerge naturally from within. The song-like Adagio had a sincere directness of expression and those thick, high E-major chords that punctuate the closing crescendo were most sublimely controlled.
Dutoit struck a perfect balance in the final Allegro scherzando, with his soloist in sparkling form. Gerstein plays with a real charisma and given his affinity for jazz, it will be a treat to soon hear him in a trans-Atlantic program.
It was not a night to remember for various section leaders. Principal horn Dale Clevenger, assistant principal flutist Richard Graef and even the usually infallible trumpeter Christopher Martin all slipped up in solo roles. And a dropped trombone mute seemed to echo on for hours.
Still, these individual kinks couldn’t erase from memory Dutoit’s searing account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905). While written in a post-Stalin world to celebrate the Soviet regime’s beginnings, Shostakovich relies heavily on nine revolutionary songs for his thematic material. The melodies are peculiarly beautiful and yet it is hard to find many reasons to rejoice in this fiercely nationalistic music.
The tensile extended introduction forms a vast sonic image of stillness, broken up only by the endless rumbles of Vadim Karpinos’ timpani. And in the bleak-as-night Adagio, the only signs of life are a wayward pizzicato.
But it’s the ear-shattering bravura of the second and last movements that lingers in the mind. (The use of twin bells in the finale, while arguably gratuitous, is a chilling touch.) Here the violent, blood-sodden character of this music stirs with its savage power, and the CSO braved every challenge like the world-class ensemble they are, in a performance that harkened back to the Solti days of yore.
Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein wins Gilmore Artist Award from Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival
Published: Thursday, January 07, 2010, 7:00 AM Updated: Thursday, January 07, 2010, 3:24 PM
Linda S. Mah | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Kalamazoo Gazette
KALAMAZOO — The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival today named Kirill Gerstein the sixth recipient of the Gilmore Artist Award.
Kalamazoo Gazette fileKirill Gerstein, right, performs with Christopher Taylor during the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in 2004.
Gerstein, 30, is a pianist who many Kalamazoo concertgoers will recognize. In 2001, he appeared in the Gilmore Rising Stars recital series. He was named a Gilmore Young Artist in 2002 and appeared at the Gilmore Festivals in 2002 and 2004, which is the same year he performed with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
“It is a great honor and very humbling,” Gerstein said in a phone call from New York on Wednesday. “This has been quite a wonderful rush.”
The prize, which is announced every four years, comes with $50,000 in cash to be used at the artist’s discretion. An additional $250,000 is made available to the winner for projects and activities to enhance his or her musicianship and career.
Gerstein said he has not yet made plans for the prize money.
“The financial prize is an invitation to come up with future creative ideas. It is like knowing you have a box of chocolates waiting for you to enjoy the contents,” he said. Daniel R. Gustin, director of the Gilmore Festival, has been familiar with Gerstein’s musicianship for almost a decade. Gustin first met him when Gerstein performed as part of the Carnegie Hall Millennium Project and worked with him as a Gilmore Young Artist.
2010 GILMORE ARTIST
Name: Kirill Gerstein Age: 30 Hometown: Voronezh, Russia. Now divides his time between New York and Stuttgart, Germany. Major prizes: 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, 2005-2006 Carnegie Hall “Rising Star.” Recordings: “Kirill Gerstein Plays Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin, Gershwin/Wild” (Oehms, 2003), “Kirill Gerstein — Piano recital (Beethoven, Schubert, Rachmaninov)” (CAvi-music, 2006). On the Gilmore selection process: “It makes a lot of sense to observe the creature — in this case a pianist — in his natural habitat, when they don’t know they are being observed or considered for one thing or another. They do it over a period of time, so they can see something of how a pianist is in his or her day-to-day musical life and musical work. It is a very elaborate process to go through, but there is no other way to do that.”
Gilmore Selection Committee: • Daniel R. Gustin, director, Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. • Matias Tarnopolsky, until recently the artistic administrator of the New York Philharmonic, and now the director of Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley. • Sherman Van Solkema, professor of music and retired chairman of the Grand Valley State University music department. • Ann Schein, concert pianist and teacher Don Michael Randel, president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. • Curtis Price, until recently the president of the Royal Academy of Music, London, and now warden, New College, Oxford University, United Kingdom.
Gilmore Artists • David Owen Norris, England, 1991 • Ralf Gothoni, Finland, 1994 • Leif Ove Andsnes, Norway, 1998 • Piotr Anderszewski, Poland, 2002 • IIngrid Fliter, Argentina, 2006
“He’s always been one of the Gilmore Young Artists that’s stood out,”
said Gustin, who noted that Gerstein is the first Gilmore Young Artist
to go on to become a Gilmore Artist.
“I’ve seen him grow and spread his wings. He’s taken on new pieces,” Gustin said. “I’ve seen him be valued and championed by other artists, singers and composers.”
Gerstein’s award was made through the Gilmore’s unique and highly secretive three-year selection process.
The process begins with the five-person selection committee seeking nominations from the musical community. That often results in at least 500 nominees, Gustin said. The committee listens to recordings of nominees to create a list of finalists. In the last year of selection, committee members secretly attend performances by the artists.
“His maturity and musicianship have deepened over the years that I’ve observed him,” Gustin said. “He’s developed a deeper, more thoughtful, more probing relationship to his music.”
Gerstein was born in Voronezh, Russia, and began studying piano at an early age with his mother. He taught himself jazz, and that led to an invitation to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music — where at age 14 he was the youngest student to ever attend the school.
Throughout his jazz studies, however, he continued to study classical repertoire and eventually decided to focus his talents in the world of classical music.
“I felt at the time, if I had to choose the role of spontaneous
improvising or studying what great minds had carefully worked out over
a year or two, the intricacies of a creation like that appealed to me
more as a life concentration,” said Gerstein, who became a U.S. citizen
Gerstein earned his bachelor’s and master’s of music degrees by the age of 20 from the Manhattan School of Music. He has studied with Solomon Mikowsky, Dmitri Bashkirov and Ferenc Rados.
Since then, he has maintained a busy international performing career.
In North America, he has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the symphonies in San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis and Vancouver. His European engagements have included dates with the Munich, Rotterdam and Royal Philharmonics. He also is an active recitalist and chamber musician. His musical collaborations have included work with artists such as violinist Joshua Bell, clarinetist Martin Frost, flutist Emmanuel Pahud and cellist Steven Isserlis.
During the Gilmore Festival, which runs April 17 to May 8, Gerstein will perform a recital on May 3, give a master class on May 5 and play in the festival closing concert on May 8.
“It is quite an honor to be recognized in this way by the Gilmore panel and to become a part of this group of very few, selected pianists,” Gerstein said.
Alumnus Kirill Gerstein Wins Gilmore Artist Award
Kirill Gerstein has been named the sixth winner of the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, given every four years to an unsuspecting pianist, as announced in the New York Times. The prize is administered by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, for which he will give a recital in May. An anonymous committee reviews recordings of the nominees and secretly attends concerts of the performers, who rarely know that they are being considered. Gerstein, a first-prize winner in the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, also won a Gilmore Young Artist Award, worth $25,000, in 2002. He was chosen as Carnegie Hall’s “Rising Star” for the 2005–06 season.
Gerstein studied at MSM with Solomon Mikowsky, earning a Bachelor’s degree in 1999 and a Master’s in 2000. As winner of the School’s concerto competition in
1997, he performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with
the Symphony under the baton
of Jerzy Semkow. He also appeared
as soloist with the Symphony in 2001, performing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D Minor with Zden?ek Mácal conducting.
Mr. Gerstein has a busy concert schedule and plays with major U.S. and European orchestras. Highlights of Gerstein’s 2009–10 season include his debuts with the Chicago Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, as well as re-engagements with the Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston, and Oregon orchestras. Internationally he appears with the NHK Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit in Tokyo, tours Switzerland with the State Symphony of Russia, and performs with the NDR Orchestra Hannover in Austria and Italy. Past engagements have included performances with such ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Arts Centre Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as such prominent European orchestras as the Munich, Rotterdam, and Royal Philharmonics, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden, Zurich Tonhalle, and the Finnish and Swedish Radio Orchestras. He also collaborates in chamber groups with musicians such as cellist Steven Isserlis, violinist Joshua Bell, and flutist Emmanuel Pahud. He made his Salzburg Festival debut playing solo and two piano works with András Schiff in 2008. As the Times put it, “reviews have generally glowed.”
Mr. Gerstein has a few possibilities in mind for the Gilmore prize money: commissioning a work; carrying out
a project that marries piano playing to a visual display or dance element; recording the music of Busoni; or combining his roots in jazz with
his classical career. (Before coming
to study at MSM he attended the Berklee College of Music.) Gerstein says of Manhattan School of Music, “Through its excellent teachers
and warm atmosphere, it taught me many essential skills as a performer
Young Pianist Thrust Into Elite Group
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: January 6, 2010
Odd, the pianist Kirill Gerstein thought. A music critic from Houston was coming to interview him in Jacksonville, Fla. Mr. Gerstein’s manager had arranged the meeting, at the Omni Hotel’s J bar, to coincide with a run of concerts last November. Might as well meet the writer, the pianist thought.
Kirill Gerstein, a naturalized American citizen of Russian origin, is the latest recipient of the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award.
But instead of a critic waiting at the bar, it was the man from the Gilmore festival. And in his hand was an envelope proclaiming Mr. Gerstein the latest winner of one of the arts world’s great windfalls: the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, given every four years to an unsuspecting pianist.
“I swallowed it,” Mr. Gerstein said of the mischievous ruse in an interview in New York on Tuesday. “I was so amazed. I went kind of blank for a minute.”
Mr. Gerstein, 30, is the sixth member of an elite and eclectic group of pianists that includes Ingrid Fliter, Piotr Anderszewski and Leif Ove Andsnes. He will receive $50,000 outright to spend as he wishes and can apply the rest to anything that furthers his career or artistry, subject to the Gilmore festival’s approval. He will give a recital at the festival in Kalamazoo, Mich., on May 3.
The award, which will officially be announced on Thursday morning, is music’s answer to the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants. And it is something of an anti-Van Cliburn Competition, a tacit rejection of the hoopla, bloodlust and horse-race quality of the international competition circuit.
It is administered by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo. Nominations are solicited; an anonymous committee sifts through commercial and noncommercial recordings, some of them surreptitiously obtained; committee members secretly slip into dozens of concerts — sometimes keeping to the balcony or hiding their faces with programs — to assess the performers, who are not supposed to know they are under consideration.
Mr. Gerstein, a naturalized American citizen of Russian origin, said he had no immediate plans to spend the money. “I’m looking forward to fantasizing with Dan the things that can be done,” he said, referring to Daniel R. Gustin, the festival’s director and the supposed music critic from Houston.
Mr. Gerstein ran through a few ideas: commissioning a work; carrying out a project that marries piano playing to a visual display or dance element; or combining his roots in jazz with his classical career. Mr. Gerstein also has long-term ambitions to record the music of Busoni, whom he calls the James Joyce of composition for his modernist, magpie tendencies.
Previous winners have used the money to take a sabbatical for practicing, to hire a publicist or commission works and, in almost all cases, to buy a piano. Mr. Gerstein ruled out the last option. He owns five pianos. They are lodged at his family home in Newton, Mass., and his residence in Stuttgart, Germany, where he teaches at the conservatory. “I think I should not be buying one for a while,” he said dryly.
His instruments include a Bechstein with two keyboards, one of 16 made by the company; a Steinway B grand; an 1899 Blüthner; and an 1848 Pleyel, its original parts intact, that is identical to Chopin’s favorite piano. Of the piano in general, he said: “At times it’s your friend. At times it’s an all-consuming monster that’s about to devour you.”
Mr. Gerstein has thinning hair and an overbite that gives him a boyish air. He ponders the effect of recordings on listeners’ ears and finds freshness in sticking to the score and stripping away performing tradition (a word he does not like). “It can sound shockingly original if you just follow what’s written there,” he said. He also does not like the word career. “I prefer life in music,” he said.
Mr. Gerstein was born in Voronezh, in southern Russia, to a mathematician father and music-teaching mother. His parents, unusually for the time and place, had a large jazz collection that absorbed Mr. Gerstein. From the time of his earliest memory he studied musicianship and piano fitfully, until he became serious about the instrument at 10, at a specialized music school. At 11 he won a piano competition in Poland, where he encountered live jazz musicians for the first time. He later spent two summers there at a jazz seminar. “This was like a revolution,” he said.
At a jazz festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mr. Gerstein encountered Gary Burton, a vibraphonist and teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, who eventually arranged for him to attend. At only 14, and without a high school diploma, Mr. Gerstein moved to Boston with his mother to study jazz at Berklee.
Soon, he said, he began to feel a little “overfed” with jazz and turned to classical music, partly influenced by an acquaintanceship with Ralph Gomberg, the former principal oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Looking back, Mr. Gerstein explained his conversion as the “radical position of a 16-year-old.” He said it seemed more interesting “to be busy with the great creations of the great minds” rather than with whatever he could produce as an improviser.
He dropped out of Berklee just shy of a degree and attended the Manhattan School of Music. His teacher there was Solomon Mikowsky. He also took lessons with Dmitri Bashkirov (in Madrid) and Ferenc Rados (in Budapest).
Mr. Gerstein came to public attention in 2001 with a first prize at the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. The next year he received a Gilmore Young Artist Award worth $25,000, becoming the first Gilmore Artist Award winner to have done so.
Mr. Gerstein has a busy concert schedule and plays with major European orchestras. He also collaborates in chamber groups with highly respected players like the cellists Steven Isserlis and Clemens Hagen, the violinist Joshua Bell, the flutist Emmanuel Pahud and the clarinetist Martin Frost. Reviews have generally glowed.
He has been teaching at the conservatory in Stuttgart since 2006, an unusual pursuit for a young pianist with a blossoming international career. But teaching, studying and performing are all part of the same endeavor, he said. “When I have to explain a piece to another person, I have a greater clarity of vision,” he said.
The official profile of a Gilmore Award winner is “a superb pianist and a profound musician” with charisma and broad musicianship who wants, and can keep up, a major international career. Candidates can be of any age or nationality; recent winners have been around 30. Countries of origin include Argentina, Poland, Norway, Finland and Britain.
The award was created in 1989 by the foundation established from the wealth of Irving S. Gilmore, whose family owned a department store in Kalamazoo and who was an heir to the Upjohn fortune. A modest and shy man who lived in a small apartment later in life, he was a serious amateur pianist and wanted to dedicate some of his money to helping musicians. The Gilmore Foundation, which has an endowment of $188 million, is the major provider of funds for the festival and the award.
The festival’s director chooses the evaluation committee, which this year consisted of Mr. Gustin himself; Matías Tarnopolsky, at the time the artistic administrator of the New York Philharmonic; Sherman Van Solkema, a music professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Ann Schein, a concert pianist and teacher; Don Michael Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Curtis Price, then the president of the Royal Academy of Music in London.
“They saw me in Toledo and Wichita and Birmingham, England,” Mr. Gerstein said. “You never know who is watching you where.”