An Interview with Kirill Gerstein

By · Translation · Title Image © MARCO BORGGREVE · Date 1/18/2018

The pianist Kirill Gerstein is something of an insider’s tip. Despite the glossy magazine covers and ever-changing artist flavors of the month in classical music, the concert reality is closer to a bit of Alfred “Adi” Preissler’s soccer wisdom: “It’s what happens on the pitch that counts.” And it’s there that Gerstein is a regular: he has a busy calendar, invitations to work with the greatest orchestras,  and is widely appreciated by colleagues and connoisseurs. Gerstein exudes a laid-back, slightly amused excitement when talking about his own field; he’s tall and contagiously relaxed in conversation. I met him in an upscale Berlin coffee roaster at the end of December. Shortly before Christmas, Gerstein had jumped in for an ailing Krystian Zimmerman for a Paris concert with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, before a final performance in Finland. “Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 as the last chord of the year, that was nice,” he said. After that, peace and quiet for a couple of weeks, a fitting moment for an end-of-year talk over two flat whites.

VAN: DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY CONCERTS YOU PLAYED IN 2017?

Kirill Gerstein: This year was really busy. I usually don’t count, but there were around eight to 14 concerts per month, so more than 100 in total.

YOU HAVE TWO SMALL CHILDREN. HOW DO YOU MANAGE ALL THAT WITH YOUR FAMILY?

When I’m in Berlin, I try to be with my family during the daytime, and to practice more in the evenings and at night—there’s a soundproofed room in the house. But then I get less sleep, of course.

HOW MUCH SLEEP DO YOU NEED?

I can still play concerts with three or four hours of sleep, but that doesn’t guarantee that I am the most pleasant person for those around me…six hours is OK, but eight would be nice.

CAN YOU SLEEP WELL WHILE TRAVELING, OR DOES THE JETLAG GET TO YOU?

The good thing is that I can sleep at a moment’s notice, even when I’m flying back and forth between the U.S. and Europe three times in a month. There have been probably only three or four times in my life that I couldn’t sleep.

DO YOU EVER WORRY ABOUT MISSING SOMETHING WITH YOUR KIDS, OR ABOUT BEING A GOOD FATHER WHEN YOU’RE TRAVELING SO MUCH?

Of course, it’s something that my wife and I check the pulse on every day, every week, every year: whether I’m there enough, how present I am. We travel together a lot, although it was easier with one child. And we have a rule that I’m not away for more than 14 days at a time. Even 10 days are a stretch.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO BASE YOURSELVES IN BERLIN?

Mostly because of the lifestyle here. As a family, we wanted to live in a part of Europe that’s open and international, economically and socially mixed, where there’s a lively cultural life and we have big group of friends. Berlin was an obvious choice.

THE TERM “HOMELAND” IS HOTLY CONTESTED AT THIS POLITICAL MOMENT. DOES IT OCCUPY YOU, TOO?

Very much so. I left Russia when I was 14, so not early enough that I would lose my memories of it, or my connection to the language or the culture. At the same time, I was still young and open enough when I came to the U.S. that I could learn the language quickly and absorb the culture. Then there was the gravitational pull of European culture, then the Jewish element—in the Soviet Union, it wasn’t a religious designation, but an ethnic one. One’s ethnicity or nationality was written in the passport. Jews were a bit of a foreign element there: something that was noticeable in banal and subtle ways, but that was also omnipresent. “What was your last name? Gerstein, aha…” The feeling of a homeland that’s strongly connected with childhood memories—which my wife has when she is back in Israel—isn’t something I have. I miss that sometimes, but being an “outsider” and thus an observer has its advantages too. I’m curious about how and where our children will feel anchored.

THE FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE CENTRAL COUNCIL OF JEWS, CHARLOTTE KNOBLOCH, SAID YESTERDAY THAT JEWISH LIFE IN GERMANY IS FACING AN INCREASING THREAT FROM AGGRESSIVE ANTISEMITISM. HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED THAT AT ALL?

We haven’t personally, but I am—partly because of my experience growing up in the Soviet Union—never of the opinion that you can just lay back and relax because antisemitism or racism have been exterminated, and the enlightened ideals of equality have taken their place. I think it is important to be aware and vigilant. Though on the other hand I should say that Germany is a very sympathetic country in which racism and antisemitism post-World War II are fought against in a much more organized and determined way than many other countries. There was an incident in Stuttgart [where Gerstein taught at the conservatory for 10 years—Ed.]: somebody sent the conservatory an article about the 1938 Kristallnacht, and had written that “we need more of such pogroms, and fewer Jews like Gerstein as professors.” I was impressed at how responsibly the school’s administration and police reacted. There are plenty of free, democratic countries where the police would have not felt it important to take it seriously.

AS AN “OUTSIDER” WHO SPEAKS MANY LANGUAGES, HOW DO YOU KEEP UP WITH THE NEWS THESE DAYS? THERE’S SO MUCH FAKE NEWS AND IDEOLOGICAL OPINION OUT THERE.

I am a news junkie and I try to put together my own picture from the different perspectives. In the Soviet Union, you knew not to take everything at face value in the way it was expressed, particularly in the news. You had to learn to read between the lines.

DO YOU SEE IT AS YOUR ROLE AS AN ARTIST TO MAKE PUBLIC POLITICAL STATEMENTS, LIKE SOME OF YOUR COLLEAGUES?

I’m rather careful with that. There’s the danger that one gets carried away—especially if you’re gifted in your own field—and has the illusion that one’s talents extend to other contexts. Going on stage as a performer and having something to say in the language of music often doesn’t equate with an ability to make sensible and worthwhile pronouncements about life and politics. Some figures manage it and many do not. For myself I feel that this impulse needs to be held in check. There are political figures, commentators, and activists that are so committed to their field; just to dabble in political commentary would be as irresponsible as their making a suggestion on the speed of a transition in a Brahms sonata.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbVfip2XoNw

A MUTUAL FRIEND OF OURS TOLD ME THAT YOU’RE GOOD AT TELLING JEWISH JOKES. IS IT EASY TO TELL NON-JEWS JEWISH JOKES?

Who knows? I don’t know if it’s more a Jewish or Russian thing for jokes to be social reference points: when something happens and you say just the punchline, everybody can recall the entire joke and understand the associative relevance to the situation. It’s like with TV in the U.S., where everyday references to lines from “Star Wars,” “Seinfeld,” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” play a similar role…In Russian culture it was the jokes. It was also an outlet for the pent up pressure to be aired out as a laugh.

RECENTLY, COUNTLESS ACCUSATIONS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND ASSAULT—INCLUDING AGAINST PEOPLE IN THE CLASSICAL MUSIC WORLD—HAVE COME TO LIGHT. ONE OF THE ACCUSED IS THE CONDUCTOR CHARLES DUTOIT, WITH WHOM YOU’VE OFTEN PLAYED OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREER. DID THE ACCUSATIONS SURPRISE YOU?

Charles Dutoit was always very supportive and friendly to me, both musically and personally.

Generally speaking, there’s no reason why something should be any different in our line of business than in politics, the film industry, or anywhere else in society. There are also these persistent notions, dating at least from 19th century Romanticism, of “strong personalities” to whom society’s rules may not apply. Our society is reevaluating what is acceptable behavior and it’s high time to do so, especially if it leads to fairer treatment of women and men, and equality between sexes.

I FEEL LIKE YOUR CAREER HAS GONE ON A FAIRLY STEADY UPWARD PATH, WITHOUT A SINGLE DECISIVE MOMENT. DO YOU AGREE?

Semyon Bychkov once told me that a life-long career in music is a marathon, not a sprint. Big moments can help, but it’d be a shame to experience your peak at 35, wouldn’t it? What’s supposed to come after that? So I’m happy. I’ve invested in musical substance in the long-term, rather than developing some marketing gimmick for myself. I find it interesting to play piano, I find the music insanely interesting, as well as the concert experience, the social architecture of it all. Even marketing—as a kind of game. But the latter can’t be taken too seriously!

HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TEMPTED TO PLAY THE MARKETING GAME?

Sometimes I think, “Ah, should I do it in some way?” It is fine to the extent that it stays authentic. But inauthenticity and insincerity are picked up on very quickly. I’ve been around for some time now and I see that what was “hyped” as the thing 10-15 years ago is often washed away. I find the self-importance with which we take ourselves in the classical music industry pretty amusing sometimes. On a planetary scale, there are really few people who are ultimately interested in the genre of classical music. Even somebody like Lang Lang, whose marketing is closest to that of a pop star, is a planet away from pop stars like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. More often than not, somebody who’s very famous in classical music is still relatively unknown to the general public. And even if you look at it from a financial perspective, a fleeting star—a new violin or piano sensation—is not necessarily any more lucrative than a serious long-term artist like Christian Tetzlaff for example.

YOU CHOSE THE RELATIVELY SMALL LABEL MYRIOS FOR YOUR RECORDS. HOW COME?

The label and its owner, Stephen Cahen, give me the greatest possible artistic freedom to explore the repertoire I’m interested in. I know a bigger label might have more PR muscle, but then personal preferences wouldn’t necessarily take priority. I just recorded a Gershwin album that’s due to be released mid-February—the jazz band version of “Rhapsody in Blue,” as well as the Concerto in F with the St. Louis Symphony and David Robertson. Also on the recording are three Gershwin songs arranged by the American pianist Earl Wild, “Summertime,” sung by Storm Large of Pink Martini fame, and a jazz standard by Oscar Levant with my former mentor, the legendary jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, all recorded live in concert. Joseph Horowitz wrote the essay for the booklet and Michael Roberts, an artist I admire, designed the cover image collage. The great thing about the project was that I could chose or have input into every aspect of it—that is unlikely to have been possible with a major label.

YOU STUDIED JAZZ AS WELL AS CLASSICAL MUSIC. OFF THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD, CAN YOU THINK OF THREE THINGS THAT ARE BETTER IN JAZZ CULURE THAN IN CLASSICAL?

Jazz promoters say, “We’d like to invite Gary Burton and Chick Corea.” They don’t say, “We’d like to invite Gary Burton and Chick Corea, but only if they play ‘Crystal Silence’ from my favorite record.” In classical, it’s more often: “We’ll invite Kirill Gerstein, but he has to play this particular piano concerto.” A second point is that I find jazz much less fixated on this naval-gazing “am I dying out or not” discourse. Everything dies at some point. But somebody who spends their entire life worried whether they’re going to die in the next few minutes is robbed of a lot of time and energy. Apart from that, I find that jazz reviews often have more substance and discuss the music rather than the execution.

IS IT EXHAUSTING WHEN YOU CAN NO LONGER HEAR MUSIC WITHOUT EVALUATING AND COMPARING IT?

Most of the time it’s interesting, sometimes it’s irritating. You know, there’s this romantic cliché that in music everything is subjective. No, it isn’t! Do you know this wonderful quote from the 18th century: “Music is a science of sound, whose end is pleasure?” It does involve a lot of craft and knowledge. Sometimes, I’ll sit in a recital and hear an unbelievably bad interpretation of a Liszt Sonata. Two bars twice as slow, two twice as fast—you can’t understand the rests or tempo even if you know the piece and the score. Then I’ll read reviews that say, “This artist is a genius, so individual, such a strong subjective view,” and think, “No, sorry. Not everything is subjective!”

YOU OCCASIONALLY CONTRIBUTE TO THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. WHERE DOES YOUR NEED TO WRITE COME FROM?

The text needs to fill some kind of gap, at least one I feel is there, like with the article about the different versions of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. Then I saw that Radu Lupu was celebrating his 70th birthday and there was, I thought, embarrassingly little in the big magazines about it. Sorry, but for me Radu is much more interesting than “the newest flavor of the month,” who’s just recorded Beethoven’s “Pathétique.” So, I wrote something.

ON YOUTUBE THERE’S A VIDEO OF YOU PLAYING WITH YOU FORMER TEACHER, FERENC RADOS. ARE YOU STILL IN TOUCH?

We keep closes ties, and I go see him several times a year. Recently for example, I emailed him a recording from a concert and asked for his feedback and we had a wonderful correspondence about it. He’s one of the smartest people I have ever met, and not only in terms of music. My life would be much poorer if it weren’t for him and my other teacher, Dmitri Bashkirov. For me it is unthinkable to say, “Now I’m an adult, I don’t need a teacher or mentor anymore.” I’ve been teaching for almost 10 years, this year there’s a new program starting with András Schiff at the Kronberg Academy, for which András invited me to teach together with him and three other pianists. Teaching has always been very productive and inspiring for me. There’s this idea from martial arts, that you don’t progress as a student of the art, if you’re not also teaching. That’s something very real. ¶