Friday, 23 March 2018 21:48

Found in Translation: A great interpreter returns with music just for the Gilmore

Written by  Samara Napolitan
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Kirill Gerstein Kirill Gerstein Photo: Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein’s repertoire spans a breadth of styles, yet his masterful fingertips reveal the unique depth and inner beauty of every piece.

A background in jazz, a discerning intelligence and a naturally curious mind make the Jewish-American/Russian pianist uniquely attuned to composers’ intentions — bringing clarity and poetic insight to a variety of works. His unique interpretative style has propelled him to the top of the classical music world, with honors including the first prize at the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition and the 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award.

In 2010, Gerstein was named winner of the Gilmore Artist Award and has returned to perform at the festival ever since as an audience favorite. He has supported creative projects and commissioned numerous works through the prize, including an untitled Oliver Knussen piece with the Gilmore in 2016. Gerstein talked with Revue about recent projects as well as his plans for the 2018 Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

How has your life changed since receiving the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award?

It has grown and expanded in all directions. A good part of that is owed to the award in terms of the things that it enabled me to do creatively, such as commission new pieces from composers and have funds for various artistic projects. And the prestige of the award is something that helps to further open doors — to create possibilities. It is up to the artist to walk through the doors, but the award is certainly very helpful in both of those ways.

In 2015, you recorded the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” instead of the popular, posthumously published 1894 version. Similarly, your newest recording reflects new attitudes toward George Gershwin’s music. Why take on projects that consider composers’ original intentions?

The main impulse is really from curiosity. As an interpreter, I think it’s necessary to try to be informed about what it is you’re trying to interpret. Today we have an availability of information like never before. It’s there to be mined, understood and then put together in some way that is hopefully interesting. When you uncover that for a hundred years we’re not playing what the composer originally wrote, the next normal step is to ask: What did he write? Was it so bad that it needed fixing? There have been a lot of well-wishers along the life span of these pieces. The well-wishing was fine, but it didn’t necessarily help.

What sounds and ideas do you explore in your 2018 Gilmore Festival solo recital, which includes works by Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Thomas Adés and a rarely heard sonata by Schumann?

It interests me to contrast Bach and Chopin with the works of Debussy. There’s a juxtaposition of a certain Germanic objectivity with this French world of impressionism at the turn of the century. And if there was ever a German composer that Debussy admired, it was Bach. In the second half, I play three waltzes by Chopin. Very often, these waltzes are either followed or interspersed with Chopin mazurkas. I didn’t want to do the obvious thing, so I play three mazurkas by Thomas Adés, a great living British composer. The Schumann sonata is a wildly imaginative piece. If there are 19th century composers that speak to somebody like Adés and other living composers, Schumann would be it. So, there are many connections that abound.

You’re also doing a unique performance with works that respond to the World Wars, including a piece by Nazi concentration camp victim Viktor Ullmann. Why are you compelled to perform these works?

Music doesn’t exist in isolation — you can trace whatever was happening in the world through the response of composers. I think these pieces retain that strength, particularly the piece by Ullmann. It’s for narrator and piano, in the words of the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I absolutely adore the combination of the speaking voice and music, which is a genre that was very popular in late 19th century and then later overlooked. I also like the idea that at a festival, things occur that you ordinarily wouldn’t experience anywhere else. Every time I come to the Gilmore Festival, I always try to combine familiar concert formats with something that’s a bit more unusual.

Kirill Gerstein

Wellspring Theater
359 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Kalamazoo
May 2, 2 p.m., $15

Dalton Center Recital Hall
Van De Giessen Rd #3001, Kalamazoo
May 4, 8 p.m., $15-$35

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