Kirill Gerstein Can Play with One Hand Tied Behind His Back!*

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, virtuoso pianist and long-time friend of the Houston Symphony, returns on January 22–24 to perform a program with Andrés and the orchestra that includes Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. We spoke with Kirill recently to welcome him back to Houston.

Houston Symphony Magazine: What is special to you about Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand?

Kirill Gerstein: It’s a wonderful piece that is perhaps not heard as often as many in the repertoire. It’s also a very different kind of Ravel than the Piano Concerto in G major, which I played with the Houston Symphony in 2010. Also, it’s in a special section of the repertoire, in that the piece is written for the left hand. Ravel really killed the competition in this arena, so to speak, because it’s such a masterpiece. It’s so cleverly written with how the orchestra and the piano are combined, and how it demonstrates the virtuosity that is possible with one hand. And I think, for various reasons, it’s one of Ravel’s darkest and most raw pieces, because often Ravel appeared like a precise Swiss watchmaker, where everything is perfectly in its place, perfectly masterful, and perfectly poised and beautiful. This is one of several of his pieces where the raw emotion and the darkness, as well as the triumphs, come through in a more open way.

Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

HSM: You happen to be left-handed, is that correct?

KG: Yes, but it really is of little help or difference in this case. More than being left or right handed by nature, I think that the training or conditioning that the repertoire provides us as pianists—the two-handed repertoire—is more crucial developmentally. I think the majority, if not every, pianist you speak to is going to have a very developed right hand because of the accent that the repertoire normally puts on that hand. The right hand is the one that does a lot of the visible virtuosic playing. But then, of course, hopefully every virtuosic pianist you speak with has equally developed hands. But it does take some extra work, in my opinion, to play with one hand alone, regardless of which hand that is. I didn’t find that my natural left-handedness made that much of a difference or gave much of an advantage in the performance of this piece.

HSM: Is there anything in particular you would like the audience to listen for in your performance of the concerto?

Maurice Ravel with Jacques Février playing the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in Paris in 1937

Maurice Ravel with Jacques Février playing the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in Paris in 1937

KG: I think I’d like to say no. That would be limiting and imposing on the audience. But in fact, I am very curious as to what the audience would hear. Somebody might pay mention to the clear influence of jazz in the music, and somebody might hear the beautiful melody of the second theme, and somebody might be taken by the virtuosity of the cadenza. So there’s really a lot to hear, and I think that a suggestion of what to listen for comes at the expense of the freedom and the fantasy for the listener’s ear. I would like to leave that to the audience.

HSM: You’ve been a friend of the Houston Symphony for quite a while now. Most recently, you were here to celebrate our tribute to Rachmaninoff—Rach Fest—in 2012, and you also helped select the Steinway piano that was a Centennial gift from the Houston Symphony League in 2013. This month’s visit marks your seventh performance with the Houston Symphony in a Classical subscription concert. What is it about Houston that attracts you?

KG: Houston is one of the orchestras I’ve been friends with for the longest part of my career. I remember playing there for the first time in the summer of 2004 at Miller Outdoor Theatre. I’ve played there many times with my good friend Hans Graf, as well as with several guest conductors. It’s actually very enjoyable, the way the musical relationship develops when you come several times, when you already know the people in the orchestra personally and musically. That’s a special feeling and, of course, I think there’s more musical trust when you have known each other for longer and have made music with different repertoire. Also, I always found the audience very friendly and open, and that’s the other crucial component. It’s a very enjoyable collaboration, and I always look forward to returning. It’s also fascinating to see the art of development over the years and how the organization and the orchestra change and evolve in an organic and continuous way. That is interesting for me to observe.

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, piano

HSM: Have you performed with Andrés previously?

KG: No, this will actually be my first time. This is a special thing for me about this visit to Houston. We’re also going to be playing together with the Cleveland Orchestra, but that’s a few months from now, so this will be my first meeting with him.

HSM: We’re fortunate that a couple of weeks after you perform with the Houston Symphony, you’ll be returning to Houston for the International Piano Festival on February 5–7 at the University of Houston Moores School of Music.

KG: That’s correct. I’ll be playing a program that concentrates on fantasy in one way or another. The idea is to explore what composers call fantasy. Very often, I think it’s when the creative spirit takes them to places that don’t fit into some formal shape or genre. The composers use the word fantasy to describe these pieces, which are in this way the wildest children of the composers.

Don’t miss Kirill Gerstein with the Houston Symphony January 22, 23, 24, 2016! Get tickets and more information here.

*It is unlikely that Kirill Gerstein will actually tie his right hand behind his back for these performances, but he certainly won’t use it to play a single note!

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