Alumni Profile: Miguel Kertsman '86
Miguel Kertsman ’86 is on the phone from his native Recife, Brazil. It’s mid September, and he is at the tail end of a vacation that reunited him with family members, but he also managed to squeeze some business into the trip.
Kertsman grew excited in talking with a friend who heads a local conservatory that is launching a program to help train underprivileged music students to play orchestral music. Inspired by the success of José Antonio Abreu and his Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, the hope is that a similar effort in Recife could give Brazilian youth the chance to break out of poverty and find a future in music.
“They will recruit kids from the slums and give them music instruction and even a small salary to play with the orchestra,” Kertsman says. For his part, Kertsman hopes to become involved as a guest conductor and artist in residence and to promote exchanges with musicians in Europe and America. “I’d like to establish an international bridge to show these kids the career potential for becoming a professional musician.”
In Three Places
If all the details can be worked out, Kertsman’s visits will be episodic rather than continuous. His multifaceted career finds him dividing his time these days between his home in Vienna, Austria, and Chicago, IL. Adding Recife to his itinerary suits Kertsman. His career has three tracks: composing, teaching, and performing. Kertsman writes symphonic works for the concert stage as well as music in popular genres for film and video games. He holds a teaching post at Danube University Krems in Austria, and is a guest lecturer at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy in Chicago and other institutions. He also performs as a keyboardist in classical as well as jazz and rock settings.
He grew up in Recife in the Pernambuco region of Brazil. There the distinctive sounds of maracatu, frevo, and other local styles blended in his mind with the music of Bach as well as the Hungarian dances and Viennese waltzes he heard around his home.
He picked up guitar at seven, but later he turned his attention to classical piano and electronic keyboards. By the time he was 17, Kertsman and his band had made a record of progressive rock that got lots of radio play in Brazil. When it came time for university, his parents were not enthusiastic about him pursuing a music career, so he studied electrical engineering but never abandoned music. During a family visit to Boston when he was 18, Kertsman slipped away for a few hours to visit the Berklee campus.
“I really wanted to see it, because some Brazilian musicians I knew of had attended the college,” he recalls. “Everything I was interested in was there, from classical composition to music technology.” Kertsman applied, was accepted, and began his studies in the summer of 1984. He was an MP&E major but also amassed a lot of composition credits before completing his studies in just two and a half years.
He gravitated to New York after graduation where he played a lot of sessions as a keyboardist and pursued further composition studies with Stanley Wolfe at Juilliard. When he landed a job as a recording engineer, and later as a producer for Sony Classical, Kertsman’s parents became less concerned about him making a living. He managed to juggle work in the studio with his compositional pursuit, and his orchestral work Sinfonia Concertante Brasileirapremiered in Brazil in 1989. He also found a balance in moving between the popular and classical music scenes. “At times, it was a real contrast,” he says. “I’d be doing sessions for house and dance music albums during the day and playing classical recitals around New York at night.”
He met and married a woman who also worked at Sony. They were transferred together to London and then Germany. They moved around, including spending time in Chicago where Kertsman did acoustics consulting work for Kirkegaard Associates. In Chicago he also made a connection that would lead him to education.
“I met some people there who were establishing the Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy,” Kertsman says. “I helped to design the school’s recording arts program. I made the decision that writing, playing, and teaching was a healthier combination for me than mixing the creative side with a corporate job.” In 2011, Kertsman left his position with Kirkegaard and moved his family to Vienna. He helped to develop a master’s degree program in composition for film and media at Danube University. The program launched in 2012, and Kertsman became its director. “I’d never planned on being an educator,” he says, “but then I fell in love with teaching.”
Kertsman continues his composing and performing. On the classical side, he recently released Amazônia: Symphonic Poem; a CD compilation of his early symphonic works featuring the Bruckner Orchestra Linz with Dennis Russell Davies conducting. Guest performers include soprano Katarzyna Dondalska and contralto Christa Ratzenböck on Acorda!, his first chamber symphony dating from 1987. The album also contains Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira and his evocative tone poem Amazônia. He’s planning a follow-up recording that will feature three new concertos.
Lately, Kertsman has fused his performing and composing interests in his work for ZoopTEK, a video-game development lab at Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. He’s written a blend of metal and world music for their titleAvarice, and has been doing electronic sports (eSports) gigs with a drummer. As gamers compete, the musicians create the score on the fly. “This is very popular in Germany where events are held in theaters, clubs, or sports bars, he says. “It’s a new idea where the audience isn’t just listening, they’re also competing.”
As well, Kertsman has many endeavors competing for his time and talents, and plenty to keep him busy in Vienna, Chicago, and Recife.