Interview Transcript: Kirill Gerstein, 2019
Kirill Gerstein [00:00:01] Well, you know, he very casually said, as we were over at his house while we were both playing at Tanglewood, he said, "Oh, there on the piano is your concerto." And I said, "Oh, how... interesting." And then he sat down and kind of illustrated bits and pieces of it. And I found that even just the first theme is instantly catching one's ear. And I find it instantly memorable. And the harmonic language is very attractive. It's very tonal, but it moves in, sort of, very "Tom ways." And so it's truly, I think, a very important and exciting musical event. And here we are sitting in the dressing room of the Boston Symphony, where there's the front two pages of Symphony of Psalms of Stravinsky hanging on the wall. And so I think this is really a continuation of the great BSO tradition of commissioning truly important works. And it's a thrill to be a part of this one.
Brian McCreath [00:01:22] Symphony of Psalms being one of those works that the BSO commissioned.
[00:01:25] And so, I'm curious, because you've commissioned a lot of music from other composers. You've premiered other music that you didn't commission. You've done a lot of new music. What difference did it make, do you feel, in this particular piece, that Tom isn't sort of just familiar with the piano, he's a world-class pianist himself? Was there something about the writing that you could sort of tell, "Yeah, this was put together by a pianist"?
KG [00:01:51] Well, absolutely. With Tom, it's clear that when you see how the writing is laid out on the keyboard, so to say, that this is really somebody who feels the keyboard very idiomatically. And also, I find with Tom's musical language, but also with his keyboard language, the knowledge of whatever has come before him is very apparent and he plays with it. So, you know, so there is his take on some of Ravel's texturing, and his take on some of Liszt's devices. But then it's always transformed by Tom's original point of view. So it's piano writing that's very rooted in tradition, but also very original and very individual to Tom and to Tom's hands. And I find the same with the musical language and the shape of the concerto, that it's acknowledging the great traditional models, but it's not enslaved by them.
BMcC [00:03:13] That's a great way to put it. One of the things that surprises me about the concerto, just knowing a lot of other pieces that Tom has written, is that it doesn't, at least on the surface, involve any kind of extra musical influences, any inspirations from some other source. It's, as we say in the business, absolute music. Was it surprising to you that he didn't pull in some extra reference to something else?
KG [00:03:37] No. I mean, I think he set out to, as he said in 2012, looking back at that conversation when he said, "Well, I think I'd like to write a proper piano concerto." And I think still this is, in that sense of a truly proper, or much more than proper, piano concerto. On the other hand, in our work together, in our exchanges about this piece in preparation for this week, he's made a tremendous number of allusions. They're not according to a certain storyline or a plot. But, you know, they're ping pong balls and snakes and an octopus and, you know, there are a lot of creatures and objects in this story.
[00:04:26] And I find that one of the things that's very striking about Tom's creative thinking is his ability to make very apt allusions and parallels to musical, um, phenomena, but also to, you know, the physical world, and to concepts. So that's always very interesting. You know, what will he compare something with?
BMcC [00:04:52] Yeah, that's one of the things about his presence at the BSO that's been so stimulating, just his sheer programing, aside from his music itself, his programing of different concert programs is just amazing, because he does, he draws threads through things that you didn't expect would be related to each other. And I imagine that that happens with some of those things that you're describing in the concerto as well.
[00:05:15] You worked with him kind of, as I understand it, from a distance as he refined the concerto after that [time] you first saw it at Tanglewood last summer. And it makes me wonder how much of “you” you find in this concerto. Was Tom sort of explicitly drawing on aspects of your musical personality to inform how he was putting this concerto together?
KG [00:05:38] Who knows? I think, you know, the best person to ask is most likely Tom. But I do know, for example, when he came to hear me play the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt in New York, and afterwards said, "Ooh, this gives me all sorts of ideas what to occupy you with." And so who knows, maybe there is some of his knowledge of my playing in it.
[00:06:08] And of course, I'm sure, you know, he wrote what he had to write because that's what the piece demanded in some way as it begins to unfold. But then there's a lot of very stimulating give-and-take in the so-called interpretation, where he will point out some specific places that are very important to him a certain way. And that's pretty much always convincing for me. And on the other hand, even today, this morning, I said, "Oh, you know, I'm taking a bit of time here. Do you think it should be moving forward slightly more?" He said, "No, I like it the way I'm hearing it." He said, "It's totally up to you." So there is that, I think, give-and-take and exchange between the composer and the so-called interpreter.
BMcC [00:07:06] And was there anything about this concerto, as you've now settled in with it, as you are now rehearsing it, to perform, anything that you have found to be consistently, every time you're going through it, just really, really challenging, like one of those things that no matter how many times you look at it, you're going to always kind of approach it, and kind of get yourself ready for it.
KG [00:07:27] Well, you know, yeah, from the beginning to the end. It's a challenging piece. But this always fascinates me with great composers writing so virtuosic music: that it's hard, and yet there is a moment where you can feel comfortable within these challenges. And I think that's something about also idiomatic writing for the instrument, that it's challenging, and at first... You know, at first, a lot of passages in Rachmaninoff, and a lot of passages in the new Adès concerto, you think, "Wow, how is this going to work, or is this going to work in my hands?" You know, abstractly, sure. And then there is a moment where it kind of seeps into the hands and the mind and then, "Oh, you know, this is, I understand what it's getting at." So there's definitely a lot of that.
[00:08:27] And on top of that, the metric games that he always plays with, how these sort of asymmetrical timings that I think some people recognize as jazzy in this concerto, especially in the third movement, how he layers that on top of the, you know, the difficulty of "what are the notes and where are they?" And so there are a lot of challenges.
[00:08:53] But I'll tell you, one place in the third movement towards the end took the longest for me to sort of fall in love with and to understand what he he's getting at. And when we met in London, I said, so I played the concerto for him and I said, "Can you play these 20 measures so I get a bit of an idea?" And he said, "Oh, actually, I can't." So that was a slight, you know, relief and encouragement that, you know, it's giving him some trouble, too. So but now, I think we've found a way to do it together.