Pianist Kirill Gerstein makes Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra debut | TribLIVE.com
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Kirill Gerstein

Performing a big, virtuoso concerto is usually enough of a challenge for any soloist, but Kirill Gerstein is a pianist with a diverse background and large musical appetite.

Gerstein will play two popular and technically challenging pieces — one Russian, the other American — for his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra debut. The repertoire reflects his own path in life. He was born in Russian and is now an American citizen. His early study was in jazz, which brought him to the U.S., where he transitioned to classical music training.

Guest conductor Rafael Payare will lead the Pittsburgh Symphony at concerts Jan. 26 and 28 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Inocente Carreno’s “Margaritena,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Gerstein as soloist, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

The pianist will perform George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in its original jazz band orchestration, along with other music, with members of the symphony at the PSO360 concert on Jan. 27 at Heinz Hall. It is currently sold out, but worth checking for last-minute cancellations.

Gerstein has many reasons for looking forward to his Heinz Hall concerts, even apart from the delight he takes in the music he’ll play. The Pittsburgh Symphony is the only major American orchestra with which he has yet to perform and he’s looking forward to a new collaboration with the conductor.

“I know Rafael Payare from the time when he was still a French horn player in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela,” he says. “We know each other a long time but have never played together as conductor and soloist.”

Gerstein has been performing the Rachmaninoff a lot lately and says his admiration for the piece and the composer is growing every year.

“I think his recordings are some of the best of anyone playing the piano,” he says. “His second concerto has a lot of freshness in it, 116 years after it was written, that gets overlooked because it is such a warhorse.”

The famous story of Rachmaninoff consulting a psychologist to deal with writer’s block is told in the symphony’s program notes, but Gerstein says that may not be the whole story.

“There is another story, propagated by his grandson, that in fact the inspiration was not only from the psychologist but also from (the psychologist’s) daughter,” Gerstein says. “Rachmaninoff had a crush on her, or had an affair with her, while he was already engaged to the woman he married. Supposedly he was not allowed to see (the psychologist’s daughter), but right before he died his wife invited her to see him for the last time.”

When Gerstein performs “Rhapsody in Blue” on Saturday night, it will be in the original jazz band orchestration, which can be heard on Gershwin’s first recording but is rarely heard anymore. It’s the version the pianist recently recorded with the St. Louis Symphony led by its music director David Robertson.

And while Rachmaninoff and Gershwin might seem to be from different worlds, in fact Rachmaninoff admired Gershwin and was present for the world premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924.

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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