Kirill Gerstein: Constantly searching for answers

The long-lasting collaboration between British composer and conductor Thomas Adès and prominent Russian-born American pianist Kirill Gerstein was prominent in this year’s Gaida festival as well. Composition for piano and orchestra In Seven Days was on the stage of the festival’s closing concert. Soloist Kirill Gerstein is highly regarded for his outstanding piano artistry. In the year 2001, his career has reached other heights when he won the first prize of the Rubinstein Piano Competition. He has also won the prestigious ECHO Klassik Gilmore Artist Award. We talked to the pianist before the closing concert at the Gaida Festival.

Is this your first visit to Lithuania?

Since I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, we often went to Vilnius with my parents on holidays. It is an extremely beautiful city. 1994 I went to study in the US and did not return to Russia or Lithuania for a very long time. I lived in Boston, New York and later went on to study in Spain, Italy, Hungary. Now I live in Berlin, Germany. I have called many places home. Today I returned to Vilnius for the first time in thirty years …

You collaborate creatively with Thomas Adès, author of In Seven Days. What does this connection mean to you?

I have known Thomas and his work for a long time. From the beginning, his music seemed to me to be distinctive, vivid, and I was deeply impressed. But I met him personally in the year 2006 when I was playing the Igor Stravinsky Music Concert with the Birmingham Orchestra. Thomas then conducted. Since then, the friendship has grown and strengthened, he has attended my concerts in New York, and I had performed in concerts under his direction. We both also have given recitals for two pianos. I also performed his work written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is the composition that sounds this year at Gaida In Seven Days. It was after that concert that I asked him to create a composition for me. I thought it was going to be a short solo piece, but he wrote the whole piano concert! I hope that in the future it will be possible to perform it in Lithuania as it is a real masterpiece. His premiere in London is coming soon. So we have personal and professional friendships. I am very inspired by Thomas, I can always learn from him, he is a wise man and an exceptional musician.

How did the composition process of T. Ades for the piano concert go? How did you contribute to it?

I contributed by initiating the beginning of creation. The composer knows my playing manner. He may have taken that into consideration. However, I think the artist should not interfere with the creative work, especially of an author like Thomas. So I tried not to pressure him too hard and ask questions. Of course, when I got the score, the process changed. Then I was trying to figure out how it should all sound. It was quite an intense collaboration, lots of questions, lots of suggestions. Being able to talk to a composer is very important to me. It’s a shame I can’t write a letter to Beethoven or Brahms and ask what they wanted to say. After all, they all just wrote down what they had heard in their minds, and it is difficult for another person to trace from the references what the composer actually meant. So it’s important to me that I can collaborate with Thomas, just like any other composer in the present.

Th. Adès’ In Seven Days tells the story of the creation of the world. What is your view on a work written as if on a religious theme?

Indeed, it is difficult to talk about religion and the creation of the world. We simply do not know many things. During rehearsals, Thomas kept referring to what was “happening” in the piece – where the person was created and so on. It also fascinates the artist’s imagination, but in my opinion, it is possible to perform well without knowing this information. While context certainly enriches interpretation.

What are your guiding principles in preparing musical work?

Every composition for me is like an organic body, a living organism. I try to understand it internally and externally, “enlightened” to find where the heart is, where the nerves are. I understand that this organism works according to certain principles specific to it. I try to follow that and feel how the composition should be done. If a turn is written, I must show it. This is not my decision. Some links between sounds are more pronounced, more important than others. While playing, I try to convey it all. This process requires a sincere interest in the work that later turns into an expression of love.

How do you choose your concert repertoire?

It is very important to me to have a wide repertoire. The more often you travel in different directions, the more experience, certain associations, impressions you have. I think when one seeks to specialize in one narrow niche, there are problems. When choosing a repertoire I always pick pieces that interest me. It is important for me to make my own choices. Solutions come from both external and internal impulses. In this way it makes sense to me, it improves me, it teaches me, it educates me as a performer.

What is a concert ritual for you?

Performing music at a concert reminds me of storytelling. There is a difference between telling a story in your mind and telling it to the audience. While playing for others, I strive to find some common ground with them. If the concert creates a sense of community and connection, then the concert is a success. Of course, music is a very abstract thing and how listeners perceive your performance can be very different from your own point of view. For one listener, the performance seems understandable, beautiful, and it is strange for another. It does not matter. If music had any effect on a person, he felt a sense of commonality with him – the concert was a success. I myself work on stage to stay focused, and follow the piece.

How do you protect your music from external influences, noise, and similar interference?

I see all other parts of my profession and music business as a kind of game. The music speaks very clearly to me, so there are no problems. When the organizational problems are finally resolved and I find a piano that I can rehearse on, then everything seems to fall into place. Even if I’m tired after a flight and I’m in an unknown place when I don’t even know where the nearest store is, I remember playing back for what I was doing. I choose this lifestyle.

What does it mean for you to be a pianist?

This is my life, work, and hobby. This is the only stable thing in my life because I am constantly traveling from one place to another. Every day I sit at the same keyboard, press the same keys and play the same sounds, listening, feeling them. So I give the playing a meditative, spiritual meaning.

My approach to the playing process changed. For a long time, I could not understand the meaning of the play. Even when I was studying, even when I won the Rubinstein competition, I didn’t know what I was doing. Trying to understand that changed my perception of the profession, but I don’t think this trip is the final stop. I still feel confused and open up new experiences in seeking answers.

Thank you for conversation!

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