Giving the Orchestra a Russian Accent

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At only 36, Kirill Gerstain has become one of the most sought-after classical pianists in the world, hopscotching from Germany to Manhattan, and this weekend, to Philadelphia to perform at the orchestra's annual festival highlighting Russian composers. 

At the age of 2, Kirill Gerstein’s son, Lev, has a much more interesting passport than most adults ever will. That’s because his father is one of the most sought-after classical pianists playing today — and he frequently brings his family along as he performs around the world. The travels of the 36-year-old native of the Russian city of Voronezh involve hopscotching from Tel Aviv — where his wife, Noam Gerstein-Szold is from — to Stuttgart, Germany, where he is a professor of piano at Musik­ho­chschule, to New York City, where he also maintains a residence.
 
Gerstein’s upcoming jaunt from Manhattan to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the end of January doesn’t require any more documentation than a train ticket or an EZPass. As someone who became an American citizen in 2003 due in no small part to the travel difficulties his Russian passport caused over the years, this is a good thing.
 
In fact, Gerstein recalled wryly, his passport did more than simply create travel delays: The state-issued document was also a blunt reinforcement of his Jewish identity. 
 
“The third line on the front page of the passport was for your so-called nationality. On mine was written ‘Jew,’ very clearly,” he said during a recent telephone interview conducted shortly before taking the stage for a concert in Cologne, Germany.
 
Although his great-grandfather was a Talmudic scholar in Ukraine, Gerstein, like so many other Russian Jews of that era, grew up with a strong Jewish identity “as an ethnic group — with Jewishness, not with Judaism,” he said.
 
As someone who saw both sides of perestroika, Gerstein had a front-row view of what the dissolution of the Soviet Union meant for improvements in Jewish life there. His verdict: not much. 
 
“It was minor to the point of being imperceptible,” he said. “That border” between the USSR and Russia “was much more for convenience. It’s not as if a change occurred overnight or even in the next few years.”
 
Gerstein likely wouldn’t have been able to speak with first-hand knowledge about what was happening in Russia after those first few years, anyway. His talent was being recognized on an increasingly global scale, including winning the International Bach Competition in Gorzów, Poland at age 11. His acumen with both the classical repertoire and, more unusually for the time, with jazz, drew the attention of one of the judges, vibraphonist Gary Burton.
 
The young pianist made such an impression on Burton, who was also the vice president of Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music, that he was offered a scholarship to the school. There, at age 14, he became Berklee’s youngest student ever. 
 
From the time he arrived in Boston in 1993 until he won the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv in 2001, Gerstein concentrated on both classical and jazz music. He was attempting to join a select club with very few members, including household names like André Previn, Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis.
 
“I finally had access to all of this information I had a hunger for” about all things jazz, he said, “not because it was blocked” in his homeland, but because it was inaccessible to the vast majority of Russians.
 
His Rubinstein win and other factors ultimately persuaded him to focus on the classical realm, he said, although he still plays jazz. He even used some of the $300,000 he received as the winner of the quadrennial Gil­more Artist Award to commission works by Corea and the jazz composer Brad Mehldau.
 
He also teaches elements of the genre to his students in Stuttgart, and employs some of the improvisational techniques that are as commonplace in jazz as they are rare in classical music. 
 
“The experiences of improvisation that jazz requires and provokes — the bouncing time — certainly are somewhere in my conscious and subconscious musical mind when I play anything,” he explained.
 
Gerstein will perform Shos­takovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” and selections from the Shostakovich suite in the soundtrack of the 1955 Russian film, The Gadfly. His appearance is part of the orchestra’s annual St. Petersburg Festival that highlights the works of Russian composers. 
 
Even with his frenetically paced international touring schedule, Gerstein has become a frequent performer with the Philadelphia Orchestra dating back to his first encounter with Charles Dutoit, the former longtime music director of the orchestra’s summer concerts at the Mann Center and the artistic director and principal conductor of the orchestra’s summer festival in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 
 
“We were put together on my first orchestral tour, and we very much got along,” Gerstein remembered. “He brought me to the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time at Saratoga in 2005. I know it is a cliché, but they are all so warm musically — and personally. It is always a treat to perform with them.”
 
Gerstein’s next major project also involves a Russian composer. He will release the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” Granted, this doesn’t meet the traditional qualifications of the term “premiere”  — the piece was written in 1875 and has been performed ever since. What Gerstein has recorded is what is known as an urtext — a performance designed to faithfully replicate the original intent and work of the piece’s creator. 
 
Gerstein heard that the Tchaikovsky State Museum in Klin was in the process of restoring the composer’s original score using recently found notes that apparently were used during Tchaikovsky’s last performance of the piece, just eight days before his death in 1893.
 
“I asked if I could look at it,” he said. “One thing led to another, I got pre-publication access, and now the recording will be coming out in March in the United States.”
 
IF YOU GO:
Kirill Gerstein performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra
Jan. 30 at 2 p.m., 
Jan. 31 at 8 p.m.
Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia
philorch.org; 215-893-1999
 

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