Kirill Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are having a moment together. On March 1, the 30-something pianist releases his Busoni: Piano Concerto album from a 2017 concert with conductor Sakari Oramo, which was the first time the work by the Italian composer was performed by the BSO. Then on March 7-9 at Symphony Hall, Gerstein premieres a piano concerto written by conductor Thomas Adès. The busy pianist chatted with us about the upcoming projects and his connection to Boston.
What is it about the BSO that led to this prolific relationship? It has a lot of roots for me. In many ways, Boston feels like my American hometown because that’s where I came to study when I was 14 in Berklee. It’s not only an American hometown, but also it was really the first place I lived in after Russia. So there’s that, and very early on, I had met Ralph Gomberg, who was the legendary principal oboist there for many years. He was the first person I met in the classical community in Boston. Because of that connection and mentorship, I went to the Tanglewood Institute of Boston University, which was for high school kids. That was my first exposure to the Boston Symphony. For many years, this was an orchestra I had admired, but it was not quite the time in my career that it made sense where I could play with them. But then gradually that came about as I reconnected with those roots from my personal American beginnings. From the first time I played with the orchestra, that relationship started growing organically. And then quite early in that relationship for me, came the concerts I did with Thomas Adés in 2012 playing an extant piece for piano orchestra called In Seven Days. That period is what led to the creation of the new piano concerto that we’ll be premiering in March with the Boston Symphony. It was in those rehearsals that I asked Tom whether he’d ever consider writing a piano piece for me. At the time, I thought, “Well, if he’s benevolent enough maybe it will be a small solo piece.” And then he said he wanted to write—in his words—“a proper piano concerto for me.” And then, I spoke to Tony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator, who instantaneously said, “We’re going to commission it. We’re going to do it.” And in the meantime, I’ve had other concerts with the Boston Symphony. And something that was the personal musical highlight of my life was the week with the Busoni piano concerto. … It was the first time in the BSO’s history that this concerto was played by the orchestra. Busoni, in fact, has a connection to Boston because he taught across the street at New England Conservatory for a couple of years at the very end of the 19th century. I thought that was a neat kind of history there.
What drew you to Thomas Adès and his work? How did you first connect with him? The initial BSO thing came about because we knew each other from before. We had first collaborated in 2006 or 2007 when he conducted Stravinsky’s The Wedding, which is with four pianos, percussionists and a choir. We became friends, and I have enormous admiration for his creativity, which is so original and vibrant and very captivating, to put it mildly. By now, I’ve been living with his musical language for quite some time. Because he is a truly great composer. In my mind, you have Brahms, Schubert, Ravel and Prokofiev and Strauss. And Tom easily stands in that row of greats. It’s not an exaggeration. And his language is very rich musically, like the language of Rachmaninoff.
What is the process when you’re commissioning a piece from him? It differs from composer to composer. With Tom, he was still busy for a while with writing his opera, but he started dropping hints at an idea he had for the concerto. As time and time progressed, he’d drop more and more tantalizing hints like: “Oh, you know, I’m in the middle of the first movement credenza. I’m really going crazy. There will be quite a lot for you to do.” But I think it’s quite important to give the composer the space and not intrude. And I think he knows my playing—and this is where it’s perhaps a special relationship. He knows the part in different pieces that particularly excite me. Or my comments about how, “I loved this bit in the opera.” Or, “This harmonic turn is amazing.” It’s not necessarily something that he takes into account, but he knows who he’s writing for. But I stay out of the process completely. I didn’t push him to show me anything until he said, “Now I’m going to show you.” … In the case of this concerto, he delivered it to me in midfall, and once he delivered it, the floodgates of our communication opened. I started to read it, accustomize myself to it. Then I started asking questions: “What does this mean? How is that working?” And he actually wrote this sweet message saying, “It’s so nice to finally not be alone on this journey to the piano concerto.” You have to imagine it’s a very lonely thing. This thing has taken him about two years to write, and in many ways he’s alone on this journey, and I think someone like him often doesn’t show half a product. But since then, there have been minor little touches of “Oh, maybe this chord sounds better if my hand stretches a little bit to play this extra note.” And we have this running thread of text messages and emails where I will make a small video placing my iPhone on the edge of the keyboard and record it. I send it to him in a text message, saying, “Is this what you mean?” And he’ll write back. We have this running thing. We’ve met a couple of times since I’ve been learning the concerto, and that’s been an in-person session where he has conducted through the concerto while I was playing.
And I asked my questions and he made his comments. And also what I described to you just now, this running thread of questions and commentary. And sometime, I think it’d be so nice if I could take Beethoven and say, “Is that really the note you mean or is that a misprint? Sometimes with Tom, he’ll say, “Oh, that’s been engraved incorrectly. That’s supposed to be a C-sharp and not a C-natural.”
What were some of the challenges of attending Berklee at 14? As far as I know, I was the youngest person in history that they had. I realize the challenges more now. The challenge of leaving Russia, where I was born and grew up, and coming to a place with a different language and culture. And then of course studying in that language in a musical style that I was experienced in, but not in all the ways the curriculum exposes you too. But the challenges were obliterated by my incredible enthusiasm at the time. I was so excited to come to the States and be speaking English. I was lucky to have learned English since I was 10, so I didn’t have really a linguistic barrier there. And to get access to the information I didn’t have in Russia or the Soviet Union: The amount of recordings, particularly jazz, but also classical and books and music. There were so many things I didn’t have access to, so it was like the floodgates opened to me. It was like I was a bit oblivious to some of the challenges. I was just kind of busy trying to soak up as much of everything as I could. I think that helped me get through that period. By the time I was a bit more adult and thinking more, some of the challenges were easier. But of course there were challenges doing course work, and it was noticeable that I was this kid. There was some pressure I was trying to live up to. But it’s not a bad training for being a concert musician because there’s a lot of pressure there too.
Photo: Dave Meyers
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Photo: Joanna Chattman
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Photo: John Huet
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■ Fresh off a Grammy win for Best R&B Song, British singer Ella Mai checks into Royale on March 9. The 24-year-old co-wrote “Boo’d Up” with Berklee grad Joelle James, turning the soulful tune into a hit that’s garnered plenty of accolades. The rising star’s studio debut topped the R&B Billboard section when it was released in October, and her follow-up single, “Trip,” also ruled the R&B charts.
■ It’s been one decade since Cambridge rockers Passion Pit dropped their full-length studio debut, Manners. Frontman Michael Angelakos is the only remaining member from that time, but despite the turnover he’s set to celebrate the 10-year mark of that album with an anniversary tour that stops in Boston. The former Emerson student minds Manners and more at the House of Blues on May 23.
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