Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Kirill Gerstein feels nurtured by both jazz and classical music

Kirill Gerstein also has an interest in tuning his pianos.
Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein takes more ecumenical view of music than most concert artists.

 No, he' s not saying "it's all good," but he declines to shelve an interest in jazz he's had since his childhood. It's right up there with classical music in his teaching activity, though as a performing artist he focuses on the classical repertoire.

And he dismisses any notion that artistic chauvinism — in the form of "only Russian pianists really know how to play Russian music" — is valid, either today or historically.

Interviewed by phone after a day of teaching in Boston, Gerstein was still focused on a collaboration he is a key part of between Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, his alma mater. "We want to create opportunities and spur the students of both schools," he said, alluding to widening the horizons of the classical musicians and the former, the jazz and pop concentrators at the latter.

"I'm not dismissing the model of instrumental studio teaching," he explained, "but I'm interested in seeing what we can do with technology and cross-pollination of styles. So it's not just sitting for hours on end practicing one piece of the repertoire, but for them to really develop the skills to see what they are playing." By that he means knowing music in context, both as distinct from other musical styles and in its original cultural setting.

"So many are not aware of the context  of the music they play," said Gerstein, 35, whose joint appointment began Sept. 15 and is the first of its kind between the two schools. "They should know where it comes from, where it fits in historically." With his classical students, that means he wants them to know recordings by such giants as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Moriz Rosenthal.  "Rosenthal is one step away from Liszt — how can we not be studying that? My students are only marginally aware of the greatest examples of performance art."

Gerstein recently recorded the composer's conducting version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor. The work is widely known through Van Cliburn's million-selling recording and also famous for its introductory theme, once the basis for a popular song, "Tonight We Love." The version everyone knows was published after Tchaikovsky's death. Right up to his death, the composer favored a score close to the original, which had been savaged in private by the key Russian musical figure Nikolai Rubinstein, who later championed it.

Comparing the two, Gerstein said: "I subscribe to the idea that this is what Tchaikovsky believed was the right version of this piece. It's much more lyrical and Schumannesque, rather than the sportive and athletic thing we're used to hearing.....This is Tchaikovsky; the other thing has been heavily tampered with."

Gerstein will play another famous Russian romantic concerto — Rachmaninoff's Third — on his return visit to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra next week. Is there something special a Russian pianist, steeped in his homeland's pianistic and cultural traditions, brings to such repertoire that is more genuine?

"It's an outdated concept," Gerstein, now an American citizen, answered immediately. "It's just kind of a nationalist, supremacist attempt to claim a certain area. When one grows up in certain surroundings and culture, you might  have a particular attachment to this music and particular associations with it, but by no means is that necessarily the right one.

"Styles and teaching traditions have become further internationalized in this century. You're a mouse click away from what everyone else has been doing," he said. What's important and must be appreciated from one artist to another, he added, is "a specific performer's relationship to the music."

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