The key to success

For renowned pianist Kirill Gerstein, the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival is ‘the dearest’ of them all.

Kirill Gerstein 311 (photo credit: Marco Borggreve)
Kirill Gerstein 311
(photo credit: Marco Borggreve)
‘I love chamber music and I never miss an opportunity to play it,” says 30-year-old Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival participant, pianist Kirill Gerstein.
“Through chamber music you find the right keys to a composer’s world and keep learning from your colleagues who don’t play your instrument and don’t care about your instrumental problems.”
Speaking via Skype from Shanghai, where he recently played Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto under Charles Dutoit, Gerstein continues, “For me, this festival is dearer than any other one, and no, I’m not saying that because I’m being interviewed for an Israeli newspaper,” he laughs.
“This was my first festival. It was where I heard and played many beautiful pieces for the first time. There I have befriended many musicians and where I always meet [artistic director] Elena Bashkirova and her father, Dmitry Bashkirov. It is almost a family event, which I have participated in since 2003.”
It was Dmitry Bashkirov who prepared the 21-yearold Gerstein for his victory at the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in 2001. But their first musical encounter was less than promising, recalls Gerstein.
“I went to play for him in Madrid, where he was teaching at the Queen Sofia Music High School. After listening to me, Bashkirov said that if that was how I played, maybe I should not play at all. He shouted and jumped about with rage, which was a bit strange for me, after I had spent a few years studying in the US.”
In his rich, vivid and precise Russian, which is amazingly good for somebody who had left his native land in his early teens, Gerstein continues, “It could not have been worse. But at least he explained to me what it was that he didn’t like about my playing.”
Upset as he was, Gerstein kept going to Madrid from New York until Bashkirov, seeing improvements in Gerstein’s performance, finally agreed to accept him as his student.
“I somehow knew that for me he was the right man at the right time. It was a unique combination of personality and musicianship that attracted me to him.
And I remembered his concerts vividly from my early childhood.”
The rest is history. After less than a year of studying with Bashkirov, Gerstein won the Rubinstein Piano Competition.
“Winning a competition is not easy, but managing a career as a performing artist is a far more difficult task,” he muses. “In a few years following the competition, you need to convert your title of the contest prize winner into your own musical name. Maybe not that splendid, but only yours. Because within three or four years, a new winner will emerge. To survive on the concert stage takes not only talent but also a lot of strategy and the ability to communicate. Granted, a musical career is something that needs to be built; and beyond obvious aims of how to play this or that piece, you have to decide where and with whom you want to perform. But again, just as in off-stage life, one should not be rigid and make quick decisions, reacting to the ever-changing situation.”
The last phrase says a lot about the dynamic musician who takes nothing for granted.
TODAY KIRILL Gerstein is counted among the most intriguing classical pianists of his generation, and the Gilmore Artist Award he received in January – and which is given to exceptional pianists who have profound musicianship and can sustain a career as a major international concert artist – only proves it.
But he could also have become a jazz pianist. Born in Voronezh (300 miles from Moscow), he was enveloped by music from day one. His musician mother was his first teacher. At the local school for gifted children he studied classical piano, but through his parents’ huge jazz LP collection, he discovered the world of improvisation.
In 1994, when the winds of change were already blowing over Russia, he was accepted to the Berkley College of Music in Boston. Nevertheless, he decided to focus on classical music and moved to New York City, where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music.
Today he divides his time between Europe and the US, giving up to 100 concerts a year.
“Concerts with orchestra constitute about 50 percent of my music activity; the rest is chamber music and solo recitals. But this division is rather formal. These are books written in the same language,” he says.
Gerstein also performs contemporary music and believes that it is important “to innocently push it on the public, without making a big deal of it. Because when you announce, ‘Now we are going to listen a contemporary piece,’ people in the concert hall become tense and afraid. But good music, composed the day before yesterday, comes from the same roots as the old and familiar repertoire.”
Gerstein recently recorded “Ophelia’s Last Dance,” a new 10-minute piece by British composer Oliver Knussen, putting it on the same disk with Schumann and Liszt. “I hope that the $300,000 Gilmore Award will allow me to commission new pieces from living composers, as well as probably to partly return to jazz music.”
Achieving a professorship at Stuttgart Hochmusikschule at the age of 27, Gerstein ironically says that he is now “allowed to corrupt young minds. I have always been attracted to teaching because I knew that from this I myself would learn a lot. I hope my students profit from this, too.”
What is his approach to teaching? “To be a bit inconsistent, a little bit sloppy, in the good sense of the word. Not to say rigidly, ‘What is important for me as a teacher is this, that and that,’ but every time to try to see the students with fresh eyes and work on what could be important and useful at this period of their development as artists. Musically speaking, I teach them to try to understand what the notes’ desires are.
Maybe it helps to imagine that the notes are special creatures that live and die and are interrelated.
Of course, I don’t play Santa Claus and Hobbits with them, but the score consists of cataclysms and stories, which could not be told in words.”
And what does he want from his career as a performer? “To continue to have pleasant experiences with my colleagues. It could happen at any place – on important stages in New York and London but also in a small French village. And I’m happy to say that it happens to me more and more often.”
The 13th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival takes place on August 31 - September 11 at the YMCA. For program details, visit For reservations, call (02) 625-0444.