Though he’s worked with many venerated maestros over his career, Kirill Gerstein collaborated with Riccardo Muti for the first time in 2015. The pianist joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its music director as part of a two-year undertaking to present all five of Alexander Scriabin’s symphonies. The project marked the 100th anniversary of the death of the maverick Russian composer, who was influenced by synesthesia and theosophy and developed his own brand of mysticism.
Gerstein, the 2010 winner of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, served as soloist in Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, Op. 60 (1910), a rarely heard, 20-minute symphonic poem that is often labeled as the composer’s Fifth Symphony.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Gerstein said. “To do Prometheus was very interesting with [Muti], and I think he is so incredibly charismatic, well, in everything, but in that repertoire certainly. And since Prometheus is perhaps a piece with a prominent piano part but is not a concerto, he said to me afterward, ‘Next time, we will do a proper piano concerto. What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Maestro, with you, anything, but, for example, a Brahms concerto would be wonderful.’ So, he said, ‘OK, we’ll do Brahms.’”
Sure enough, some months later, he got a call from the CSO’s artistic staff inviting him to return as soloist with Muti in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1 in concerts on Nov. 16-18 and 21. But there was an additional request as well: Would he also be willing on the first half to perform the solo piano part in Richard Strauss’ suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme?
“It was a very gracious inquiry,” Gerstein recalled, “because they said, ‘Well, Maestro will understand if you feel that it’s too much to play before Brahms, and if you’ll be too tired.’ I thought, ‘Mmmm, Maestro Muti, the Chicago Symphony. I don’t think I’m going to be tired.’ So, it’s kind of unusual, but I’m glad that I will be involved in both halves of the concert. I’m excited to sit in the middle the musicians of the Chicago Symphony and play some Viennese waltzes and whatever else there is in the Richard Strauss piece with Maestro conducting. So that will be a lot of fun.”