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Classical Album of the Week: The Gershwin Moment with Kirill Gerstein

The Gershwin Moment: Rhapsody in Blue & Concerto in F

November 12, 2018: Growing up in the Soviet Union, Kirill Gerstein studied classical music and taught himself jazz before coming to America to study both genres. His latest CD includes both classical and popular works by George Gershwin. An accompanying essay by Joseph Horowitz explores Kirill Gerstein and The Gershwin Moment. 

At 14, Kirill Gerstein came to America to study jazz at Boston's Berklee College of Music, then classical at Manhattan School of Music.  In 2010, he won both the Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Gilmore Artist Award, leading him to commission a range of new works.  Today the renowned pianist performs in recital and as soloist with orchestras all over the world. 

He sat down with WRTI's Susan Lewis to talk about recording Gershwin and choosing his whimsical album cover. 

So, what prompted you to do this album in the first place?

Well, for a long time I actually resisted even playing Gershwin in concert and therefore also recording it because it felt some way too obvious that, of course, if I studied jazz then so I should play Gershwin.

But finally I gave into this temptation and enjoy playing Gershwin tremendously. In fact, there's a connection in Concerto in F for me with Philadelphia because the first time I played the Concertos in F with orchestra was here with the wonderful Philadelphia Orchestra.

I think Gershwin is very fascinating for me as an interpreter because of his switching references, from moments that really sound like a jazz band or moments that sound like songs from Tin Pan Alley; then moments, both in the Concerto or the Rhapsody, that really see him expressing something in this symphonic style, and show, I think especially he was a young man when he wrote these pieces, a kind with a show off quality of 'I can write like Rachmaninoff and I can write like Liszt and I know how they do it.'

And this switching is very gold fish like—it flickers and swims within the piece in a very mobile way. And so it's a lot of fun.

I love the cover artwork on this CD. It's King Kong?

Well, I'm, delighted that you like it. I'm very fond of this image as well. I think, today, if one makes a recording that comes out as a physical object, then we should try to take care of all the aspects of the content.

We should describe it. It's King Kong on the top of the empire state building with a piano keyboard below him. But the piano keyboard also...

Looks like a New York skyline with the low water tower on top of one of the keys and notes are spraying and all directions from King Kong. I thought since this album has a number of wonderful and dear collaborators, St Louis Symphony, David Robertson conducting, and Gary Burton and Storm Large, I thought that it would be inappropriate and uninteresting to just put a photo of myself on the cover.

And then I was looking through a lot of images, searching for what could fit and I stumbled upon a lot of old New Yorker magazine covers and some of them looked very New York and very art deco and full of humor.

I did some research, and a number of them were made by a man named Michael Roberts, who is a legend in the fashion industry. He was The New Yorker's first fashion editor, but also he does these wonderful collages with pieces of paper.  I went and spoke to him and he came to a concert of mine and afterwards he said, 'oh, I know exactly what I want to do for this Gershwin recording!'

So, this is the image that we have for the cover. And inside there's what I find is a very thought-provoking essay by Joseph Horowitz about the acceptance or nonacceptance of versions of music, especially by the American so-called classical music establishment. 

Well, you mentioned that the essay talks about how Gershwin wasn't totally accepted by the classic classical music world and that bothered him. He was a great songwriter, but he wanted to be taken seriously. And did that influence the way you interspersed these wonderful songs and wonderful piano pieces with his Rhapsody in Blue and his Piano Concerto in F?

Not necessarily, but I think [we take] this music with great care and seriousness, as we try to approach it with David Robertson and St Louis Symphony. I think one of the reasons why the album is titled The Gershwin Moment is because it really seems to have changed the placement and the acceptance of Gershwin's music.

If you think that the first time Porgy and Bess was done at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1986, and if you think that the Chicago Symphony hadn't done the Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue on subscription until 2000 and the Boston Symphony haven't done the Concerto in F until 98 , in their subscription series.

And it's interesting that Gershwin was very quickly accepted as  a musical genius, by the European musicians, by Ravel, for example, by Schoenberg, by Klemperer, by Heifetz. At the same time, there was a great deal of snobbery towards him and some way rejection by people like Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copeland in the United States.

Today, many pianists, myself included, play Gershwin, Concerto in F one week, let's say with The Philadelphia Orchestra and then a Beethoven Concerto or Brahms Concerto, next week.

But if you look at the '60s, '70s, '80s, this was more, 'Oh, this is pops repertoire.' That's a very welcome change.

So, we titled the album The Gershwin Moment because, finally, the music is being celebrated for what it is, which is not only that it's joyful and wonderful to listen to, but also the great talent and craftsmanship and skill that constitutes this music. And so it's good to see that being appreciated fully and along with the other great composers.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.