TROY — Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein has always been a little ahead of the curve, from being a quick study to using an iPad instead of a page turner at his concerts. It all started early when he was studying at a school for gifted children near his home in Voronezh, Russia.
Although he was being classically trained, he so loved listening to his parents’ jazz collection that he taught himself how to play jazz. Those skills impressed vibraphonist Gary Burton, who was performing at a music festival in the then-Soviet Union. It got Gerstein accepted into Berklee College of Music, Boston’s premier jazz college, when he was 14.
But three years later, Bach and Beethoven beckoned. Gerstein headed to the Manhattan School of Music where by the time he was 20 in 1999, he had received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. What to do next? In 2001, he won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv and in 2002 received the Gilmore Young Artist Award.
For the next few years, he concertized in the United States and Europe, including making two appearances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (in 2007 and 2009), where conductor Charles Dutoit called him “a great pianist — very civilized, very educated.”
Pianist Kirill Gerstein
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
HOW MUCH: $35, $30
RELATED EVENT: Pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. at Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 Second St., Troy. Free for ticket holders
MORE INFO: 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org
Then, in 2010, his career and life changed. He won not only the Gilmore Artist Award, which is given only every four years to an exceptional artist who can sustain a major international career and brings a stipend of $300,000, but also the Avery Fisher Grant of $25,000. Since then, his life has been a whirlwind of international performances, commissions, recordings, and when he has time, teaching at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart, Germany.
On Wednesday, he will perform at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
Gerstein has been an American citizen since 2003.
This month, his schedule is typical: a recital at Berklee, two days of orchestral solos in Oregon, the recital in Troy, and a recital in California. In between are days of practice expanding his repertoire, rehearsing for upcoming chamber music concerts, and trying to find a quiet moment. He took some time a few weeks ago while on a tour of Israel to chat.
Q: The Gilmore is known for how mysterious it is. The prize winners never know they’ve been chosen until they’re notified. How did you find out?
A: They are very mysterious. It took some stealth getting live recordings from my concerts. The process is lengthy and they are very thorough. It’s not like the 10-day adrenaline rush at a competition. I think that because I knew some of the committee from when I’d won the Young Artist Award (in 2002) that I thought it was entirely innocent for them to show up. Little did I know.
I was in Florida and — you can tell how much I trust my manager — when she called to schedule an interview with a Houston paper in person, I was only mildly wondering why it was being done so far in advance. I was to meet the person in the bar at 4 p.m. and when I went in I saw Dan Gustin, the director of the Gilmore Festival. I thought, “How odd that he’d be here. It’s rare that he’d be stalking pianists.” He shoved this envelope into my hand and said, “You’re it,” and I gasped. There were no words. It’s unprecedented to have gotten the Young Gilmore and the actual Artist Award.
Q: How has winning the award impacted your career?
A: It added to what I was already doing publicly and with promoters. It was a helpful boost. But people were always asking how to spend the money. It’s a significant sum. I didn’t have an answer right away but an idea grew that affects the Troy recital. I decided that commissioning pieces was something nice for me because it would be a special piece I could play; working with the composer would keep the money in the artist community; and the work would stay past my activities.
Q: What composers did you decide on?
A: Oliver Knussen, a British composer, wrote the first piece, “Opelia’s Last Dance” and finished in time for the Gilmore Festival in 2010. I wanted to bring the jazz and classical worlds closer. They’re not as far apart as they are thought and music is music. I’d admired Chick Corea for a long time and with the impetus of the Gilmore money, I approached him out of the blue. He wrote a piece for me and Gary Burton on vibes [“The Visitors”] that is completely written out but is in the jazz idiom.
Then I went to Brad Mehldau. We had done a concert improvisation on two pianos. He wrote an intensely original piece with influence from both worlds. [Gerstein will perform Mehldau’s “Variations on a Melancholy Theme” in Troy.] Timothy Andres is also writing a piece.
I’m quite happy and proud of these truly tangible, new and quite soulful pieces. The boost of recognition is great. And the jazz commissions have helped me to reconnect to my core. I do a little jazz for myself, not publicly. I don’t have enough time.
Q: Tell me about what you’ll play in Troy. Is that program what you’re doing in recitals this year?
A: I like to keep my repertoire varied, there are no specific pieces each season. But I like to have connections. So I decided this would be a concert of variations. It’s not a nice salad of stuff that I’ve learned. Some thought went into it. I chose Haydn’s Variations in F minor. This is a very special piece. Haydn pushes the boundaries of early 19th century to reach later times. He was a very revolutionary composer, very visionary. This work is romantic with a major and minor dichotomy. Brahms’ “Paganini Variations” Book 1 and 2 is incredibly virtuosic. He made it as difficult as he could for his own entertainment. It’s not just technically challenging but also creative and beautiful music.
I wanted to do Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” until I heard Vladimir Feltsman had just done that (at Union College). So the California recital will get that, and Troy will get Schumann’s “Carnival.” This is a bold way of expressing variations. All originate from a four-note motif, which was an encoding of a town’s name where his girlfriend lived. Schumann takes great joy with these hidden passages and uses them as a seed for the whole piece.