Press Room

Kirill Gerstein triumphs at Houston Symphony’s “RachFest” in Jan

Last month, Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein wowed audiences and critics alike with multiple performances of all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos, as artist-in-residence of the Houston Symphony’s “RachFest” a special three-week celebration of the composer’s music. Of this extraordinary musical feat the Houston Chronicle reported, “Gerstein scored a knockout,” and the Houston Culture Map confirmed, “Piano god Kirill Gerstein rocked the Rachs.” As for festival-goers, the Chronicle described the “five-minute ovation” that greeted Gerstein’s final program, a response that the Culture Map considered not merely “Southern hospitality,” but something “different, genuine, and heartfelt.”
Rachmaninoff has long been a signature composer for the Russian-born pianist. “I usually don’t admit to having a favorite composer,” he told the Chronicle, “but in the case of Rachmaninoff, I must say that I truly enjoy playing his music. I have loved it since childhood. It’s a part of my Russian heritage that embedded itself in me early on.”
In a series of blog posts accompanying the festival, Gerstein called Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos “some of the most gratifying pieces written for the piano.” He added, “Playing and hearing the four concertos in three consecutive weeks offers a special opportunity to hear the essence of Rachmaninoff’s voice while observing the changes and growth of his style.” Undertaking three accounts each of the four concertos was an ambitious project, not least for the piano soloist. In a little over three weeks (Jan 5-22), Gerstein offered three performances of the third with British conductor Edward Gardner, as well as three each of the first, second, and fourth under Houston Symphony Music Director Hans Graf.
The pianist characterizes the challenge posed to modern interpreters of works as popular and familiar as Piano Concerto No. 2 as one of “trying to get back to the source of the pieces, peeling away the listening habits and clichés, and taking the pieces seriously, as they were taken, before becoming ‘warhorses’ of the repertoire.”
There is little doubt that he rose to this challenge in Houston with his performance of the iconic second concerto. The Chronicle praised his “delicate artistry” and “warm emotion,” observing:
“Gerstein was in command from the start, steadily gathering force with the brooding chords that open the work, later nimbly dispatching quicksilver runs and sending cascading showers of notes down the keyboard. He brought genuine feeling to the lyrical passages, yet maintained a sense of movement and drive, even in quieter moments.”
Another giant of the repertoire, the Piano Concerto No. 3, has already played an important part in Gerstein’s career, featuring in a number of his major orchestral debuts. Of the work and its significance for him, the pianist explains:
“This mighty piece has helped shape my way of playing the piano. … While the piece is famous for its melodic beauty and technical difficulty, its structural inventiveness is often overlooked.”
Gerstein communicated these insights at the keyboard for “RachFest” listeners. According to the Chronicle:
“Gerstein consistently met the work’s challenges and complexities: the dense chords, intricate figuration and those incessantly rolling, perpetual-motion runs. His total mastery of the first movement’s epic cadenza was in itself a feat of breathless brilliance.
    “Beyond the sheer stamina and keyboard acrobatics the work demands, Gerstein’s playing was distinguished by his mastery of the music’s ever shifting moods. He unleashed the fire of feverishly impassioned moments, then bought subtle artistry to more delicate effects, as when a lyrical passage trailed to a whisper in the keyboard’s upper reaches and vanished in a feathery trill.”
All told, Gerstein found the Houston Symphony’s RachFest “a memorable and touching experience,” offering the “chance to form bonds that go deeper than the usual five-day engagement period most concerto performances allow.” The pianist’s blog posts about the experience can be accessed in full from his web site.
Upcoming highlights:
On March 30 at the Berklee College of Music (where, at the age of 14, he became the youngest college student in the school’s history) Gerstein returns to his jazz roots, with a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in the original 1924 arrangement for piano and jazz band. The event includes Gerstein’s premieres of new works by Chick Corea (with vibraphonist Gary Burton) and Brad Mehldau. These new pieces, along with Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance and a new work by Timothy Andres, were all commissioned by Gerstein using prize money he received after winning the 2010 Gilmore Award.
Gerstein also returns to New York’s 92nd Street Y for a solo recital on April 21, juxtaposing Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance – premiered and originally recorded by Gerstein – with works by Bach, Busoni, Schumann, Schubert, and Weber. Between February and April, he takes this program on the road with a seven-concert recital tour in the US, with the program focusing on “dance.” This month he performs solo recitals at UC Berkeley (Feb 12) and Sarasota, FL (Feb 16), as well as a duo recital of music by Beethoven with cellist Steven Isserlis in Milan (Feb 23).
Kirill Gerstein: 2012 engagements
Feb 12
Cal Performances, UC Berkeley
Feb 16
Sarasota Concert Association
Van Wezel Hall, Sarasota
Feb 23
Recital, with Steven Isserlis, cello
March 6
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra / Zoltan Kocsis
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3
March 9 & 10
Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra / David Lockington
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2
March 18
Newmark Theatre, Portland, OR
Portland Piano International
March 23
Martha-Ellen Tye Recital Hall, Iowa State University
Ames Town and Gown Chamber Music Association
March 25
Sunday Afternoons of Music
Gusman Hall, University of Miami
March 27
Princeton, NJ
McCarter Theatre Center
March 30
Boston, MA
Berklee Performance Center
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (original 1924 arrangement)
Corea: The Visitors (new work with Gary Burton, premiere, Gilmore Artist commission)
Mehldau: Variations (premiere, commissioned by Gilmore)
April 7 & 8
Dresden Philharmonic / Michael Sanderling
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1
April 19
Vancouver Recital Society
Chan Centre
April 21
92nd Street Y
New York, NY
BACH: English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811
BUSONI: Giga, bolero e variazione: Studie nach Mozart from An die Jugend
KNUSSEN: Ophelia’s Last Dance, Op. 32
WEBER: Aufforderung zum Tanze, Op. 65
SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9
SCHUBERT: Selections from Soirées de Vienne
April 29
Gilmore Festival Activities
May 3-12
Gilmore Festival Activities
   May 9: two-piano recital with Brad Meldau
   May 12: Kalamazoo Symphony / Raymond Harvey
                Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5
May 17, 19, & 20
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra / Vassily Petrenko
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2
Liszt: Totentanz
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