In Classic Form


Celebrated concert pianist Kirill Gerstein '96 still maintains a passion for jazz.



It's 1:00 P.M. when Kirill Gerstein walks into his first rehearsal with the Norrköpings Symfoniorkester in Norrköping, Sweden, following a dawn flight from Germany and a 90-minute train ride from Stockholm.

Gerstein is the orchestra's featured soloist in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1, which is quite a different role from the one he played in the previous night's chamber music concert in Bonn. As Gerstein seats himself in front of a black Steinway, conductor Alan Buribayev introduces him to the orchestra. Gerstein glances quickly at his surroundings in the elegant Louis De Geer concert hall before turning to Buribayev for the downbeat. The piano enters with a torrent octaves in both hands. No sleep? No problem. As always, Gerstein's playing is highly virtuosic and expressive.

Just 30, the Russian-born Gerstein is a rising star in the classical-music world. For the past nine years, he's earned his living by traveling the world giving solo recitals, chamber concerts, and soloing on dozens of concertos with top orchestras on every continent. A former child prodigy with a high IQ and perfect pitch, Gerstein can't remember a time when he didn't play the piano. He received thorough classical training in Russia and discovered jazz through his parents' record collection at 10. Ironically, it was jazz-and assistance from former Berklee faculty member Gary Burton-that lured Gerstein to America where, at 14, he became the youngest full-time student Berklee has ever admitted.

"I met Kirill at a jazz festival in Saint Petersburg, [Russia], where he acted as my translator," Burton recalls. "He was a very poised, impressive young man. I was very surprised when I heard the tape he gave me of his playing. His jazz piano style was very similar to the solo playing of Keith Jarrett-pretty sophisticated for a 12-year old."

Two years later, Gerstein enrolled at Berklee. For the next three years, he attended the college year-round, taking every course that he could to feed his voracious appetite for musical information. At 16, after sidelining classical music for jazz during his Berklee years, Gerstein returned to his classical roots and enrolled in Manhattan School of Music. While he never lost his passion for jazz, he recharted a course that has led to widespread acclaim in the classical world. In addition to earning his master's degree at Manhattan, Gerstein has won several prestigious classical music competitions. His ré&sumé& lists the Gilmore Young Artist Award, the Carnegie Hall Rising Star Award, and the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, the last of which provided the momentum that launched his career.

Earlier this year, he received the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award. As he announced Gerstein as the winner of the $300,000 purse, Daniel R. Gustin, the director of the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, described the pianist as a "musical thinker and performer who will continue growing and who can, and we believe will, attain a career as a major concert pianist for the 21st century."

Gerstein's September 16 performance of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 1 wowed the audience in Norrköping. Their long and vigorous applause was only hushed when he returned to the piano to offer a plaintive encore. The tempo of Gerstein's career is moving con brio these days, and no matter what or where he's playing, he's always in classic form.

Can you describe for me your formative years in Voronezh, Russia?
Music was always in the house because my mother was a music teacher. I can't remember when I started, because it started seamlessly like it was a game. Starting as a game is probably a good way to approach many things. Voronezh is a fairly big city by Russian standards, about one million people live there. It has quite a few colleges and universities and an orchestra. When I started school, I went to a special school where music training was interspersed with other subjects. We might have biology first hour, math the next, then ear training, history, and piano lessons. At that time I really liked music, but didn't find great inspiration from my piano teachers. But when I was 10, I studied with a very good teacher. I was chosen to go to a Bach competition in Poland in 1990 or 91, and I won.

You received early classical music training, but when were you first exposed to jazz?
I started fiddling around with jazz on my own with the few jazz records my parents had. I had little access to jazz in Russia otherwise. I had a good ear and would pick things up off the records we had. When I went to Poland for the competition, some musicians heard me in a practice room playing jazz interludes in between classical pieces and took me to a jazz club. After that experience, I started going to jazz workshops in Poland during the summer.

There were good outcomes from winning the Bach competition. The prize was an invitation to play the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A. It was my first time playing with an orchestra. With the [prize] money, I bought an Atari 1040 ST computer, the first one with a built-in MIDI interface and music programs. Another outcome was getting an invitation to the jazz workshops where I met Berklee faculty members Orville Wright, Greg Badolato, and Skip Hadden. There were many other students there who were also interested in jazz. So I got two weeks where my head was exploding with all this new information about jazz.

In the fall of 1992, I was invited to one of the early jazz festivals in Saint Petersburg and got to hang out with some American jazz musicians. There were whispers that Gary Burton, who wasn't scheduled to play, was going to come by to play as a special guest. I got to translate for him. I had a pad of Berklee staff paper on which people had written well wishes to me, and I asked Gary to sign it. I asked if he knew Greg and Orville, and he said, "Of course I do; I'm the vice president at Berklee." He asked me to send him a recording of my playing. I did, but I never heard anything back. I went to the workshop in Poland the next summer, and the Berklee faculty members asked me why I hadn't written back to Gary when he invited me to come to the Berklee Five-Week Summer [Performance] Program. I hadn't gotten the letters. It made me wonder why those letters conveniently disappeared while my family had been getting other mail.

After that, I communicated with Gary by fax machine and got the invitation to the summer program. In 1993, I got to attend Berklee. To me it was great to play in ensembles, go to the library and to Tower Records. After that I was given a scholarship and became a full-time student.


Your technique and music reading skills must have been well developed by then.
I had the classical background and intense training in harmony, solfège, and ear training. I could play the piano pretty well too. When I came to Boston in 1994, the college required that one of my parents accompany me because I was only 14. My mother came with me, and my father joined us later. Because I'd had so much theory training, I was able to test out of a lot of courses, which enabled me to take a lot of electives. Berklee let me roam freely and take whatever courses interested me.

Gary was one of my teachers. I would show up at his office, and we would just play. A lot of his teaching was done just through playing with him. He would make comments but was very economical in his use of words. I thought it was wonderful that the teachers at Berklee played with students. At a typical conservatory, that doesn't happen as much. In the Berklee ensemble classes, the teacher usually played.

I also played in Phil Wilson's [Berklee] Rainbow Band. Phil and Gary were the most important mentors for me at Berklee. Phil got me into playing stride piano at a time when I was all about the music of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. That was very useful, and I still love stride piano.

Berklee also had wonderful classical analysis courses, some things that weren't offered at top conservatories. I had semester-long classes on the string quartets of Bartok and Beethoven, and the early music of Arnold Schoenberg. I was going in so many different directions then because I was so hungry for information.

While you were at Berklee, did you keep up your classical playing?
During the three years I was there, classical was on the back burner. I always hoped that I could do both jazz and classical playing, but I realized that I couldn't do both as well as I'd like to. One or the other would suffer. I find that even the greatest players who do both play one style better than the other. It was important for me to make a choice.

In the long run, I felt it would be better for me to study the music that was worked out with great intricacy and inspiration by the best minds in Western classical music. So after three very intense and productive years at Berklee, I went to Manhattan School of Music. I had so many credits from Berklee that I was able to get both a bachelor's and a master's degree in four years. Next I went to Spain to study with Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid. He's an amazing teacher from Moscow, and it was total immersion-more than piano lessons.

How did winning competitions help you launch your career?
Winning the Rubenstein Competition opened many doors. But it's a step-by-step process to launch a career. After you win a competition, you get a certain amount of concert bookings. There is a small window to convert that [opportunity] into recognition for who you are rather than just as a competition winner. If you don't, the next year there is another winner and people book the new winner, not you. For me, things developed gradually.

Did you look for a booking agent as things started opening up?
I'd gotten an agent just before the Rubenstein completion after I played the Brahms One [Piano Concerto No. 1] with the Zürich Tonhalle Orchstra with [conductor] David Zinman. That was my debut with a major European orchestra and a big conductor. After that concert I had management in place to help me make the best of the opportunities resulting from the competition. I got American management a few years later in 2004 or 2005.

Judging from the programs you've played this year, you keep a staggering amount of music memorized and under your fingers. How do you keep it all up?
I've played about 15 different concertos in addition to solo programs and a lot of chamber music this year. The music requires constant revisiting, maybe once a year maybe once every two months. The repertoire is interconnected in the brain. What I practice in a Brahms concerto I see a few months later has an effect on parts of the Rachmaninoff concerto. So even if I don't play a concerto for several months, somehow in the back of my mind it is still slowly developing or changing-sometimes it's disintegrating. Sometimes I come back to a piece and say, "huh?" A piece may come back to me slowly or quickly.

Are you interested in works by living composers as well as the time-tested classics?
I am. I have recorded a new CD that has a piece written by Oliver Knussen on it. He is one of the great living composers. I was delighted that in connection with the Gilmore [Artist] Award, a new piece was written for me by him. It's a 10-minute solo work called Ophelia's Last Dance and it's absolutely beautiful. Before I recorded it, I went to London to play it for Oli and discuss it with him. Usually you spend hours thinking, "What did Beethoven want when he wrote this marking?" To have the composer there in person to ask about such things was very helpful.

People always ask me what I plan to do with the large sum of money that came from winning the Gilmore award. It's not to be spent in casinos, it's for musical purposes. I would like to dedicate a good portion of it to commissioning new pieces. I'm thinking mainly about new solo works, but there are ideas floating about for a new concerto.

Do you think conductors will be open to programming something as involved as a new concerto?
I think now there is a certain hunger for new works. How many times can you cycle through the Beethoven and Brahms concertos? They are great masterpieces and our ears are accustomed to them because we have heard them for 120 or more years. Someone may hear a new piece once and say, "I don't like it, I like the Brahms concerto." If we had heard the new piece as many times, maybe reactions would be different. I think it's important to combine old and new in the programming. That would show that the new is not so unrelated to works of the past and that older works are fresher than one may think.

I think orchestras would welcome the chance to show a great new concerto to the public. Orchestra directors have some practical realities to deal with, but with some creativity, it can be done. I think it's different for piano, cello, or violin than for some instruments like the guitar that have a smaller repertoire. At the moment, this is a good time for new pieces for piano, violin, or cello-if the pieces are good.

As a pianist, are you at the point where your technique can accommodate the demands of any piece you want to play?
Well, technique is just like money. The more you have, the more ideas you have for using it. In that sense, the challenges are always expanding-and that's a good thing. In the end it's about your musical goals, which should definitely be expanding. I don't work on exercises when I practice. I've always felt that all the material needed to develop technique is in the pieces I play. When I run into my limitations I figure out work-arounds to get past them. It's a process we all go through.

What repertoire do you feature on your upcoming solo album?
It has the world premiere recording of Knussen's Ophelia's Last Dance sandwiched between two large 19th century masterpieces. This shows my belief in programming old and new pieces together. The disc opens with the [Robert] Schumann Humoreske op. 20, a wonderful piece from the 1830s. Then the Knussen piece followed by the [Franz] Liszt Sonata in B minor-one of the grand works of the piano literature. This year is the 200th anniversary of Schumann's birth, 2011 is the 200th anniversary of Liszt's birth. The CD will be released in the U.S. and Canada on November 9. [Visit]

What do you think about releasing new recordings when CD sales are down?
I don't think it is realistic to expect that the recording will be a huge money-making venture when compared to having an active performing career playing concerts in many places. For me, this is a document of what I thought about these pieces at a certain time, like a photograph of one's playing. For listeners, CDs offer artists a way to be present in places and times when there's no concert scheduled. It's a way of reaching a wider audience and it supports concerts. I know if I like someone's CD and I see that they will be playing nearby, I'll go to the concert.

Besides making an artistic statement with a CD, the process of recording is very different from playing a live concert and interesting to play with as a performing artist. The financial reward is not the key issue to be concerned with in making a CD. Generally, if you are after financial rewards, perhaps music isn't what you should go into. There are much more direct ways to make money. For me, playing the Brahms concerto last week with the Dresden Philharmonic and Rafael Frübeck de Burgos was amazing. It's something I would want to do anyway. I enjoy playing that piece so much with that conductor and orchestra in a nice concert hall in front of a good audience. On top of all that, I get paid for it. That's a nice thing!

Through your work, do you cultivate relationships with conductors and get to play with them again?
Yes. For instance, Alan [Buribayev] who I am playing with tonight in Norrköping [Sweden] is someone I've played with in several different seasons and places. We first played in Toulouse, France, then in Baltimore, Germany, and Holland before playing here.

It must be challenging to put a large-scale work like the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 1 together after having only two rehearsals and with an orchestra with which you've never played.
It's a challenge playing a different piano in a different hall with a different conductor and a different atmosphere among the orchestra musicians. Many things are so completely different that I could never play a performance the same way twice. Many people think that in jazz you come up with things on the spot, but in classical music you just play what's written and it's always the same. I compare it to someone giving a Shakespeare monologue. Does everyone read it the same way or read the same things into it? An actor cannot repeat a performance with the same inflections even if he wanted to.

These pieces I play are living as I play them in the concert hall. There is a lot of room for flexibility and improvisation, in that you make your mind up on the spot and react to chance elements because of your surroundings or how you feel at the moment. Jazz also has a lot of structure; improvisations don't come out of thin air. Jazz artists do a lot of homework just as stand-up comedians do even if they aren't reading the jokes word for word. I always try to argue that the art forms of jazz and classical are not as far apart as people think they are.

If you were to revisit jazz, would you be interested in playing standards or original pieces?
I consider it important for any jazz artist to do both. I have written pieces in the past. Very often when I'm practicing, to take my mind off Rachmaninoff or some other piece, I'll start playing around with an idea, playing with some chords. I want to get together with Gary [Burton] again and maybe with his help, something will develop.

I don't have ambitions in jazz, though, which is a nice thing. But jazz is still very much a part of me and interests me. I like its sound and concepts, and I like the culture of jazz. I'd like to take some time and revisit that part of me and keep developing it. Maybe I will do a project where classical meets jazz. Gary and I spoke a few years ago about having a composition where the written and the improvised parts were linked together. I haven't found the right composer or the right format for that yet, but it's floating around in my mind.

I had a wonderful conversation with Gary after he and Makoto Ozone recorded their improvisations on classical pieces. Gary told me that he found learning a [Domenico] Scarlatti sonata incredibly difficult. He asked how classical guys do this all the time with so many pieces. I told him that he plays things that are 100 times more complex and virtuosic than a Scarlatti sonata. He said, "But I never have to play anything on a given night that I don't feel up to."

In that sense, there is a difference between jazz and classical playing. But the conceptual idea that in classical music everything is notated and therefore there is no flexibility and change, and that in jazz everything is open and free, is wrong. Each has individual challenges. When you read music that's not your own, you need technical discipline and have to internalize it and find a truthful way to express it. That's [the classical musician's] challenge. In jazz, there are other challenges. So while there are differences between the two styles, there are similarities.

I have a suspicion that jazz could have developed more along the lines of classical music. Jazz has become more of a notated art as the music has gotten more complicated. But classical music didn't have the recording process accompanying its historical development until 110 years ago. There was a need to preserve classical music and it became more and more a notated music and you got a separation between those who write the music and those who play it. The development of jazz was influenced by the recording process, the music could be preserved in other ways.

In a way, recordings violate the concept of jazz as a one-time, improvised event. But people listen to [Miles Davis's] Kind of Blue album over and over, so in a way that music becomes part of a canon that has been listened to, adored, studied, and imitated just like classical music. It's just that Miles Davis didn't write it down.

Do you have any goals or visions for your career 10 years down the road?
Making goals like that can be dangerous because they don't take into consideration the dynamics of life. But there are still many things to do. Most importantly, there is so much more repertoire to explore. Classical pianists are lucky to have so much. You could easily fill this room with things that are pretty much essential for pianists to play, including solo repertoire, chamber music, songs. For me, this amazing library of music is one of the most attractive things about playing classical piano. There are certain pieces I'd enjoy playing with certain conductors. There are places I'd like to play and others that I'd like to play again. I'd also like to do some further jazz studies. I'd like to conduct some of the classical [era] concerti from the keyboard. My interests are increasing but my time is more and more packed.

Is the touring exhilarating or exhausting for you?
Both. The change of repertoire is quite consuming and of course the travel can be tiring. In the end, I find it exhilarating-especially being on stage playing these pieces. That's the part I love. Going to the airport at 5:00 A.M. is just exhausting, but you do it because that's what makes the lovely part possible.