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Kirill Gerstein: our profession is a blend of memory, emotion, physicality and intellect

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Born in the former Soviet Union, Kirill Gerstein is an American citizen based in Berlin. His career is similarly international, with solo and concerto engagements taking him across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. An important focus of last season was the world première of Thomas Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and composed especially for Mr. Gerstein, the concerto is the outcome of a long and productive relationship with both orchestra and composer. Following the world première in Boston and New York premiere at Carnegie, both with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and European premiere with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, this season Kirill Gerstein and Thomas Adès present the new work with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in Munich, Helsinki Philharmonic, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Kirill Gerstein will also play the concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Alan Gilbert and the Danish Radio Symphony led by Nicholas Collon.

We met with Kirill to discuss his education and upbringing in the late years of Soviet Union, his move to the USA and studies at Berklee School of Music, his vision of pianism as art curation, his interest in jazz and modern composition, and his collaboration with Thomas Adès. On November 29, 2019 Kirill Gerstein and Thomas Adès perform Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with Helsinki Philharmonic in Music Centre, Helsinki.

Kirill, my first question is what it is about a profession of a musician that you would not get in any other sphere?

Here the question is whether we are talking about profession or a life occupation, because definining an artistic profession as occupation is ridden with conflicts. Are we talking about the pure business of giving concerts, or are we talking a life occupation that is much closer to a religiously meditated service of something or a loving study of a subject.

What is it to you then?

I think it is much more the second one, while luckily I also manage with the profession and manage to have a living through playing an instrument – in my case piano. But a much more interesting source of interest is the substance, the artistic pursuit, and athletic pursuit in some sense. As an instumentalist, in difference to a conductor or a composer, I also have to work with the physicality of an athlete, combining it with the emotional and intellectual concepts that art brings, and fuse them together. So this is special about our profession – everything is activated. If you think of it, it is one of the last professions where active memorizing is still used, as people now rely more not on memorized content, but on analytical capabilities, as you can always use a search engine or a database. So, the memory, the emotional, the physical and the analytical are combined in it, and it is rather a special blend.

Can I pick up on what you have just said? Do you think it would be the last profession to disappear with the advent of AI that we are facing?

I am not sure about it. It is clear that in future music could also be generated by AI. Is it a problematic or an interesting point, is another question. Performance and art are very contextual, as people are influenced not only by what is played, but by who is playing – a 10-year-old or a 70-year-old, for instance – and they would perceive the artistic value of things played differently. If a machine can play the piano in a more wonderful way than Horowitz, it will change our aesthetic perception, as machine playing a concert would be very different thing from a human playing it. When you see an athlete raising a heavy weight, you don’t say – ‘Oh, well, but that crane or a lifting machine could do that better’. So I am not sure that this is a thing to worry about. I think another worry should be whether we in general are becoming less of art-involved society or species – it is also not clear yet, as some genres fade, while others come in. I don’t have terrible anxiety about these issues as compared to environmental problems and social and economic inequality in the world. I think the latter are much more important matters of concern than whether a music-generating AI will replace me and a bunch of other people.

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Can we come back to your past? I am very impressed by the fact that you went to the USA at a very early age to study at Berklee School of Music. But you also had studied in a music school in Russia – what were the differences? And how did this move affect you as a personality and a musician?

I got the benefit of several wonderful things as a child. The early education system and the standard of music education specifically is very high in Russia. The idea that music education can take place in a systematic way from the early age of a child is very helpful. Also I was particularly lucky as my mother specialized in developing musical sensibilities and perception in young children, so I also got the advantage of that. And then I went to muzikalnaya shkola which was a special music school that existed only in Moscow, St Petersburg and a few other places. We had a combined curriculum of general school and special music subjects, and that was great. And then I left when I was 14 which, on the one hand, was early enough for me to be able to adjust to a new environment relatively easily, but on the hand, I was grown-up enough to keep my connections to Russian culture and feel close to it. I have taken care in keeping up my Russian, not allowing it to get rusty. Also, higher education in the States and Europe is very serious, and I was able to take as much from it as I could, as was already rooted in a fairly systematic Russian music education. There was a large variety of electives in Berklee School of Music in Boston, so I took on jazz and other new things. The flamboyancy of offerings in American universities is very conducive to growth. And as it was already been late-Soviet and early post-Soviet period when I was growing up, as a child I was allowed to pursue an interest in jazz, as just a few decades earlier it hadn’t been allowed or was severely discouraged. So I was in a way prepared to freedoms and variety of America, as I was growing up being open to different kinds of music rather than being ridigly directed towars conservative piano playing.

So what you are saying that we can’t make a divide of you leaving a conservative Russian national school behind and starting a new, open training in the USA?

It is very dangerous to make such distinctions, because there is not a clearly outlined definition of any national school. Considering how much cross-pollination there has been, the very idea of a national school is usually formed and proclaimed in moments of patriotic desperation. Even if we take Russian music school and Russian piano-playing school, the founders – brothers Rubinstein – essentially had a very German training. So we could say that Russian school owes much to German school, that could be said about classical music in general, as it could be traced to Beethoven and Bach. But then if you look at later period – Soviet times – Russianness was also very diffused due to the scope of the country, to teachers and famous pianists being of different origins and having studied in various places, and also being different personalities not complying to any homogeneous school. And the lack of homogeneity is actually fine. Traces of my Russian upbringing are still there in my playing, but I am a fan of ecclecticism. The artistry that appeals to me has a nature that combines different influences.

What are yours, then?

Certainly the great Italian composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni, Rachmaninoff who remains one of the greatest musicians to have ever played the piano, and also many jazz musicians, as well as countless pianists and musicians from various decades. Among the living ones I could name Radu Lupu who is absolutely magical, Andras Schiff who is a dear friend and an incredible musical mind and performer. Whoever you name, you always feel you are excluding dozens of other people.

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Can you describe the life of a modern touring musician? Is it international connections and constant touring, or do you have time to lead a more or less stable life in a certain place?

Playing sometimes over a hundred concerts a year, it is obvious that my stability is in instability as I am constantly moving. With modern communications and transport it is also possible to be appearing or flickering at home. When I am not home, I also teach, and in my opinion teaching is a very essential and normal part of being a musician, as it involves regenerating and getting ideas through discourse and explaining something to students. It is not that I pass my presumed musical wisdom to somebody else, but it is engaging with music substance on a slightly different level. So yes, this life involves a lot of travelling, but it is a personal choice, and at this moment I have made a choice to play and travel as much as I do, because you could always limit yourself here. I find complaints about a difficult schedule slightly hypocritical, as after all you are the one for whom this difficult schedule is made, and it can be changed and adjusted, so a tight touring schedule is our choice like everything in life.

Once you have built an intensive schedule, what is your discipline in preparing pieces and concertos needed for the tour? How do you find inspiration if the work inondates you?

I don’t have tips or trick here. What truly sustains me, and I think it is the same for many other musicians, is the musical substance of the pieces we play. The process of making sound is so interesting and engaging for me that it has always been self-generating and self-regenerating mechanism. So I find the whole process interesting and profoundly amusing in the deep sense of the word. And if I wouldn’t of if the time comes when I don’t, the ethical choice would be to do less or not to be engaged with music at all, because otherwise it would be unappealing sort of prostitution just to come out and do circus pony tricks on the keyboard, unless it engages your mind and remains profoundly interesting for you. So far I haven’t had that problem, because the substance is very stimulating. In piano repertoire we have been very lucky, as the first-class pieces are there in enourmous quantities, and then you have all the secondary pieces that are still quite good, and the third-class music is also not bad, so as pianists we have an unlimited library of repertoire, and that is very stimulating.

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

How do you form your repertoire? Do you prefer to work with modern composers – judging by your collaboration with Thomas Adès? Do you have a special penchant for a certain century?

I don’t like to choose a particular period because I find that what we do is being art curators. It is Thomas Adès who writes music, creates new content, and in many ways it is more exciting and respectable. What we do as performers, or what we ought to do, in my opinion, is to present the repertoire to the audiences in a way that an art curator would during an exhibition. Basically to make it interesting you play something from the 18th century next to something from the 20th century and let pieces shed a different light on each other. So I find it normal and necessary to play a very broad selection of repertoire. So I don’t have this problem of specializing and choosing a certain period – baroque or modern music, and I think that such specialized curation would not be very appealing for the audiences.

Are there differences between European and American audiences in terms of openness to new things?

In America I have encountered audiences of greatest refinement and intellectual capacity here, and I have encountered less perceptive audiences in places that were generally perceived as more attuned to classical music. America is not a homogenous place, and thinks that could be played at Berklee would not perhaps be so well received in other places, but it has less to do with the geography but rather with cultivation of audiences. Having said that, I would also add that if there is a strong idea in your programme, it usually comes through, and people are very hungry for adventurous and creative things. There is also a fear of not repeating what others are doing. But if you have a strong idea, it usually begins to live a life of its own – sometimes you can sense its success in advance, sometimes you don’t – if the idea is strong, you would find a way for it to come across.

Could you decribe your collaboration with Thomas Adès?

Tom has written a new Piano Concerto for me that we have started playing around the world. It was commissioned by Boston Symphony Orchestra. This Concerto has just been finished last year, but it has become an instant classic. It stands proudly without any props next to Ravel’s Concerto or Prokofiev’s Concerto. When the initial idea is strong, rooted in things that people know but completely original and not derivative, then people – audiences – love it. It has been a smashing success in Boston and later in Carnegie Hall, New York. And music managers also got immediately inspired by it, and so we now have more than 40 booked performances for a piece that was written in 2018 and premiered in 2019. It’s a refreshing counterbalance to people saying that new music is not popular. Also the inspiring thing was that orchestras eagerly took it on – these bodies can be quite conservative, as they are big entities and they have their own business running. So it appears that they are also very starved for something that is real and striking. That is very encouraging, and I am happy to play it all over the world – USA and Europe. Another piece we did in LA this summer was very unique, as it involved two international soloists, Thomas as composer/conductor, a new piece written for LA Philharmonic and the involvement of the Royal Ballet (London) with choreography of Wayne McGregor. It was wonderful that it took place, and the nice thing for me that I wasn’t on stage so the visual element of how I look was absent and there was a certain refreshing normality of just playing – and in the pit!

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

How do you feel being a performer who has this unique personal connection with a famous modern composer? Do you feel being a channel of his music to the audiences?

What feels very special that there is a certain reality to what is happening in this collaboration. So much of what we play is music by dead white men – of course, trying to imagine what Beethoven was thinking is also inspirational, and whether a certain place in the score was a mistake or bore a special message. Also, with previous centuries you are taught to be in awe of composers, you approach an instrument and their music almost with a prayer – it is very ingrained in Russian approach to music. Here everything is alive. Tom is a colleague, and you can approach him if you find difficulties with a score, and everything is tangible and changing. There is a certain exhilarating and refreshing reality in playing his pieces, and I myself feel more real after working with him – that could be one of the reasons I love playing music by modern composers. So I think there is that element, and by now there is a very intimate, close connection. I wasn’t influencing his compositional process in a direct way, but Tom knew that he was writing it for me, he had been to many of my concerts, we have played many concerts together, and he knows me and my taste in music, and I know him. That is a great honour when a great composer writes music that is somehow related to you.

What are your plans for the near future?

Apart from touring with Thomas’s Concerto, there is also a new Concerto by Thomas Larchin, a wonderful Austrian composer, and there are some smaller modern pieces. I find it important to be engaged with musics (stresses) from any time that in my opinion is good to present to the audiences, and whether it is from 2019 or 1820 is less of an issue. As I said before, I stand by the idea of ecclecticism in creation of a music programme, and it should not necessarily be a concert of modern music, it could span many centuries, including our own. The important thing is for it to be curated in a certain way so that it is presented to the audiences and makes them relate to it.

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