Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Interview with Kiril Gerstein, in connection with his appearance with the San Francisco Symphony playing Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Column for the Bay Area New Group website and newspapers run on October 15, 2010.,

"Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," said Winston Churchill in 1939. That very same aphorism could be applied to Sergei Vasilevich Rachmaninoff, 1873-1943, one of that country's most revered sons. He was not only a composer, but one of the world's greatest pianists, as well as a magnificent conductor.

As a composer, he embarked on an intensely personal, totally contrasting path from his contemporaries - Schonberg, Berg, Webern, Varese, Scriabin, Prokofiev and others who were experimenting with atonal, serial, 12-tone, aleatoric, or highly intellectualized, formulaic music. Rachmaninoff bucked the trend by writing gorgeous, achingly beautiful Romantic tonal music. Since his music was often heavy and sometimes even grim, Igor Stravinsky, his younger Russian colleague, quipped, "Rachmaninoff (who was indeed tall and very thin) is 6 feet, 6 inches of Russian gloom."

Rachmaninoff suffered a nervous breakdown after the premier of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897. Even after his recovery, he continued to struggle with bouts of depression. Through it all, he succeeded in giving the world some of its most furiously passionate, powerful music as well as some of its most poignantly sweet. His melodies, several of which found their way into popular songs or film scores, rival the best of Puccini or Tchaikovsky.

Fortunately for us, Russian-born pianist Kiril Gerstein, 31, is in the Bay Area performing one of the very loveliest and most exciting of Rachmaninoff's works, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of guest conductor Semyon Byckhov, another Rachmaninoff authority. Other works on the program will be Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and William Walton's poetic Symphony No. 1.

Young Gerstein has already garnered some of the world's grandest piano prizes, including a first place in the Arthur Rubenstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, and in May, 2010, the coveted Gilmore Prize of $300,000. In short, Gerstein is a stand out - even among the world's impressive current roster of star pianists. But, even though Gerstein is known as a superlative interpreter of the moody Rachmaninoff, he retains a light, fun-loving side. During a telephone interview last week, he revealed that some of his merriest moments are when he performs with the sensational 29-year-old Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel and his Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar, especially in Latin America.

"After the concerts are over we sometimes gather with other musicians to have jam sessions playing tangos, jazz, and other Latin pieces. One time we played until 4 a.m., even though we were scheduled to perform a matinee that afternoon," he said with what sounded like a bit of impish glee.

His father was a mathematician and his mother, a piano teacher. He recalled that his first musical experiences were in his childhood home in Voronezh, Russia, when he would crawl under the piano to listen to her when she played or taught. She started him on the piano when he was three. He not only absorbed classical music, but also jazz by listening to his parents' many jazz recordings. He was eventually sent to one of Russia's special music schools for gifted children.

After moving to the United States when he was 14, he continued to study jazz piano at Berklee College in Boston and classical at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, where by age 20, he had earned both Bachelor's and Master's degrees. At age 27 he was tapped to teach at the prestigious Musikhochschule in Stuttgart, Germany.

Kiril Gerstein and his fiancee with Cheryl North backstage at Davies Hall, after his performance with the San Francisco Symphony on October 15, 2010