Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein is a big admirer of Thomas Adès, an acclaimed British composer whose opera, The Tempest, is seen by many as one of the most important such works of the past two decades. “Tom is somebody I’m very close to,” said Gerstein, 38, who will perform Nov. 16-18 and 21 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “And even though the word is over-used, I think he is somebody who comes close to the actual meaning of the word ‘genius’ musically.”
Gerstein, the 2010 winner of the Gilmore Artist Award, has served as soloist in the composer’s first work for piano and orchestra, In Seven Days, which was premiered in 2008 by the London Sinfonietta. The two have performed duo piano recitals that included works for that combination by Adès, who is also a well-respected conductor and pianist. “That is a musical partnership that I find very fulfilling,” Gerstein said.
But the most important chapter in their collaboration is yet to come. In spring 2019, Gerstein is scheduled to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of a piano concerto by Adès. After performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall, the orchestra will take the work to Carnegie Hall in New York City.
The new work’s beginnings can be traced to November 2012, when Gerstein joined Adès for a set of performances of In Seven Days with the Boston Symphony. In preparation, he and the composer met in New York City so that they could run through the piece, in which the piano has moments in the spotlight but also functions as a kind of ensemble percussion instrument.
With his $300,000 in earnings from Gilmore Award, Gerstein has commissioned several noted composers, including Timo Andres, Chick Corea and Oliver Knussen, to write solo piano works for him. So during his meeting with Adès, he asked the composer if he might consider doing the same.
“I said, ‘I’m sure there is a very long line to get a piece from you, but I’d just like to say that I would like to get in that line however it long it takes,’” Gerstein said, “He said, ‘Oh, yes, of course, I’ll write a piece.’ And then after a moment, he said with a shy intonation, ‘But does it have to be a solo piano piece?’ And I said, ‘You know, it can be whatever you say it’s going to be.’ Then, he said, ‘Well, I would like to write a proper piano concerto,’ as if In Seven Days wasn’t a proper one, and I think by all standards, it is.”
A few days later, they began rehearsals with the BSO, and Gerstein mentioned the possible piano concerto to Anthony Fogg, the orchestra’s artistic administrator. Fogg seized on the idea, immediately committing the BSO to commissioning it, taking away any need for the pianist to use part of his Gilmore Award earnings for the project. “So that was like the shortest commissioning conversation ever, and there it was,” Gerstein said.
The pianist is already scheduled to perform the new concerto with other orchestras after the Boston debut. “Hopefully, we can also bring it to Chicago,” he said. “I think we should.”