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Kirill Gerstein “shows his stripes” at Gilmore Keyboard Festival

All ears were trained on Kirill Gerstein as he took the stage at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan in May. In his review of Gerstein’s performance at the festival’s gala on May 8, Stuart Isacoff of the Wall Street Journal commended Gerstein for his “blazing technique, including a wonderful command of color and nuance” and wrote that, “The Gershwin was magnificent, with a sense of playfulness and stylistic flair seldom encountered.” In January, the Russian-born pianist became the sixth recipient of the coveted Gilmore Artist Award, worth $300,000 and described as “music’s answer to the MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grants” (New York Times).  Only two months later, the pianist followed this coup with a second major triumph, being named the winner of a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.  As Musical America’s George Loomis observed, the recital offered “the general public…a chance to measure its reactions against the decision makers.”  Yet Gerstein appeared to thrive under the pressure.  “His interesting choice of repertoire and his searching playing supplied few, if any, grounds for dissension,” affirmed Loomis, who concluded: “He is both worthy of the award and someone who can benefit from it.”  The pianist’s appearance at the festival’s May 8 gala was equally victorious; “Immediately upon the conclusion of the concerto [Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major], the packed house…leaped to [its] feet in a wildly enthusiastic ovation,” reported the Kalamazoo Gazette, adding: “It would be a safe bet to venture that quite a few in the audience now have a new favorite performance of this work.”  The following afternoon, New Yorkers had a welcome if unexpected opportunity to assess the pianist for themselves, when he flew in at short notice to substitute for flu-stricken Ingrid Fliter, who was to have closed the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts’ season.  “Saving the day” with the same “fascinatingly constructed” recital program as at Kalamazoo, Gerstein crowned his performance with a “spellbinding account of Liszt’s B-minor Sonata” (Allan Kozinn, New York Times).  As Musical America confirms, now Gerstein may truly be said to have “show[n] his stripes.”

The Avery Fisher Career Grant and Gilmore Artist Award are both significant milestones in a musician’s career.  Worth $25,000 each, the Avery Fisher Career Grants have been awarded for excellence since 1976, providing recognition to outstanding instrumentalists; this year’s other winners were Yuja Wang, Joyce Yang, and David Aaron Carpenter, and former recipients include Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Jeffrey Kahane, Edgar Meyer, Gil Shaham, and Richard Stoltzman.  The Gilmore Artist Award is made only once every four years to a pianist of exceptional ability and profound musicianship who is deemed capable of sustaining a prominent international career, as is evidenced by the caliber of previous winners, who include Leif Ove Andsnes and Piotr Anderszewski.  To have chalked up both awards in a single season is an unprecedented honor, representing a supreme vote of confidence in Gerstein’s talent and future.


With the 2010 season, West Michigan’s biennial Gilmore International Keyboard Festival celebrated its 20th year.  Gerstein made his first festival appearance on May 3, with a recital program featuring the world premiere of Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance – a festival commission – alongside music by Liszt, Busoni, and Schumann, whose Humoreske in B-flat, Op. 20 has, according to Loomis, “a kind of two-sidedness as it darts from dreamy lyricism to virtuosic turbulence. … Gerstein made it a treat to hear this infrequently played work.”

However, as the Kalamazoo Gazette observed, “the apex of Gerstein’s recital was the last work performed: Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B minor”; this was the piece that most tested the pianist’s abilities, and, once again, Gerstein passed with flying colors.  “Kirill Gerstein…found the ‘sweet spot’ for bringing the sonata to full life. … Liszt emerged a more brilliant composer thanks to the layers of beauty Gerstein located in the score. … Audiences here and around the world are in for some extraordinary music from Gerstein.” And for Musical America, George Loomis noted: “Liszt’s Sonata in B minor…was played with interpretive depth and remarkable polish.  … Gerstein’s command of the piece’s architecture was sure as ideas flowed logically from one to the next.  And he showed an almost limitless capacity to achieve nuanced shading and coloristic effects. … I look forward to hearing him again.”

After presenting a master class on May 5, Gerstein’s next Gilmore appearance was as the featured artist at the gala concert that closed the festival on May 8, when he performed both Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – contrasting works that reflect the two strands of the pianist’s musical training and background, in classical music and jazz.  As the Kalamazoo Gazette appreciated, he gave “a stunning performance” of the Rhapsody, while rising with aplomb to the even greater challenge presented by the seminal Romantic concerto:

“By playing the Tchaikovsky concerto, Gerstein set himself up to be compared with the host of exceptional pianists who have already recorded this work. … He was absolutely brilliant throughout the work. … It was so much more than mere bravado that set his performance apart.  The way he shaped phrases and exploited incremental dynamics was pure genius.  In his hands, the work took on a fresh, new character.”

If Gerstein had entertained hopes of a well-earned rest after his Gilmore triumphs, they were to be short-lived.  New York City’s historic Peoples’ Symphony Concert series was to have closed its season on May 9 with a recital at Town Hall by Ingrid Fliter, the 2006 Gilmore Artist.  When she realized she was too ill to attend on the preceding night, Gerstein was quick to step into the breach with a last-minute change of travel plans.  This goodwill was rewarded; his reprisal of his Gilmore recital program – only the afternoon after his double concerto appearance – met once again with high esteem.  As the New York Times’s Allan Kozinn reported, “Mr. Gerstein played these pieces [by Busoni] with an illuminating clarity and an unassailable technique.  Those qualities served him even better on larger canvases.  In Schumann’s Humoreske (Op. 20), Mr. Gerstein kept the singing top line soaring over the accompaniment, even in the work’s more intensely driven sections.”  As at Kalamazoo, it was the Liszt sonata that took center stage; Kozinn continued:

“This performance paled beside Mr. Gerstein’s spellbinding account of Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, in which he balanced a big, torrential sound in the work’s thunderous sections with crystalline – but still assertive – phrasing in the more introspective passages.”

Gerstein’s other recent North American highlights have included debuts with the Atlanta Symphony and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; re-engagements with the Detroit, Houston, and Oregon Symphonies; and a tour with cellist Steven Isserlis that included performances in San Francisco and at the Kennedy Center.  Upcoming engagements include the pianist’s Boston Symphony debut at Tanglewood on July 30, when he will revisit Tchaikovsky’s first concerto under Charles Dutoit.

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© 21C Media Group, May 2010

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