Jazz? Classical? What’s the Difference? Kirill Gerstein
A preview by Marc Shulgold
Most of us think of the pop and classical worlds as existing in two universes — widely separated by cultures and attitudes so alien to each other that there seems no chance of meaningful integration. But then, most of us don’t think like Kirill Gerstein.
The 32-year-old Russian-born pianist is so comfortable playing jazz and classical that he has no problem programming both in the same recital. That’s what he’ll do in his December 4th appearance in DU’s Gates Concert Hall, kicking off the three-event Piano Series for Friends of Chamber Music. Oh sure, he’ll open with a couple of classical offerings: a little Haydn to loosen up the fingers, and then Mussorgsky’s monumental Pictures at an Exhibition (popular in its orchestral setting by Ravel, but originally written for piano). After that, things get very interesting.
Gerstein will next serve up a set of variations written for him by noted jazz keyboardist Brad Mehldau, followed by a pair of contemporary works from Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti that will alternate with two songs by Gershwin (arranged by Earl Wild). From that line-up, one gets the impression that this pianist is not your garden-variety product of stuffy music academies and suffocating music competitions. Well, that’s not entirely true: He did attend a Russian conservatory and has won a pair of prestigious awards. But rather than impede his growth as a free-wheeling musician, they nurtured it.
The pianist brushed aside any impressions Westerners may have of the strict, unsmiling atmosphere in Russian conservatories. “In my student days, I was encouraged to improvise, to learn how to play by ear. Classical teachers in Russia are not prohibiting this way of playing. For my mother (his first teacher), this approach was particularly up her alley.”
Jazz records were found in abundance in the Gerstein household. He loved them all, though he did point to an Oscar Peterson-Dizzy Gillespie disc along with a few Dixieland collections that stood out. “I started with the classical world,” he noted, “but I was also learning jazz. I’ve always been a believer in a well-rounded (musical) approach. You know, back in Bach’s day, the ability to improvise was an expectation.” True enough. And Mozart and Beethoven were great improvisers, gifts that they gladly displayed at public and private performances. Still, the jazz and classical genres seem so at odds with each other: The latter, as we understand, is all about playing (or singing) the notes exactly as written on the page, while jazz presents the performer with unlimited opportunities for freedom and spontaneity. That’s a misconception, Gerstein countered.
“It’s true that many jazz musicians are inhibited by playing something that is written out. But the truth is, there is less freedom in jazz than most people realize. It’s not all that spontaneous. Much of it is worked out in advance through hours of practice and experimentation. Conversely, there’s a lot more freedom in classical music than you might think.”
His musical dual-citizenship had led the 14-year-old Gerstein to pursue his studies at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where jazz is a specialty. He was given a scholarship to the school by vibraphonist Gary Burton, who’d heard the 12-year-old Gerstein improvise at a festival in Russia. Through his Berklee experience, the pianist began collaborating with Burton and noted jazz pianist Chick Corea. Now married to an Israeli woman, Gerstein lives in Boston and has been a U.S. citizen since 2003 (though he retains a Russian passport.)
If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s a classical pianist. But jazz — or its spirit, at least — runs through his veins. “Even in a written-out composition, you need to bring a sense of spontaneity, to understand what freedom can feel like,” he explained. “I want to uncover that trace of the composer’s thoughts. It’s in the score, and it’s my job to discover what I can do with it. Yes, it’s a place for inhibitions to start, and there is risk playing either style of music. But risk-taking is an important component of life.”
Gerstein put himself on the international musical map in 2001 when he won the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. But his career took a sudden and unexpected upturn in 2010 when he was presented with the Gilmore Artist Award — an honor given every four years through a secret selection process. Besides the immediate prestige, the Gilmore comes with a check for $300,000. When he received word about this honor, Gerstein immediately knew what he’d do with his winnings. “I wanted to use it for musical purposes,” he said. In other words, commissions. A longtime admirer of Mehldau, Gerstein made contact and asked him to compose something. “I told Brad, ‘Write what I love hearing you play, but add layers of complexity.’ The original idea was for a 10-12-minute piece. But then, I heard back from him, and he said, ‘I couldn’t stop (composing)!’ It turned out to be around 27 or 28 minutes. And, yes, it is very difficult in spots. For me, it is quite an honor to have triggered this into existence.”
Naturally, there was more than a little trepidation when he received Mehldau’s Variations on a Melancholy Theme, and even more when he began playing the piece in recital. “We know that (Beethoven’s) Moonlight Sonata works. With a new piece, we don’t always know that.” But then, this is part of the challenging world of Kirill Gerstein. Clearly on a path toward a long and intriguing concert career, he has already established himself as a different sort of musician. The concluding mini-suite on his Denver program offers confirmation. He said of the two Ligeti Etudes (Fanfares and Rainbow), “they’re really quite jazzy-sounding. When you hear them alongside the two Gershwins (Somebody Loves Me and I Got Rhythm), they’ll make sense. I believe that a recital program should say much about the pianist. And it should provoke some thought.”
Kirill Gerstein will appear in a Friends of Chamber Music recital at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 4 in Gates Concert Hall of the Newman Center, University and Iliff Avenues, in Denver. Tickets are available through the Friends’ Web site (friendsofchambermusic.com) or by calling (303) 388-9839. Tickets will also be sold in the Newman Center’s lobby beginning at 7 p.m.