Pianist Gerstein Skilfully Conjoins Classical and Jazz
Gerstein and clarinetist Cohen astound on “Rhapsody in Blue” at the BPC
“My musical journey thus far has been shaped by an intertwined love of classical and jazz music,” pianist Kirill Gerstein’s program notes began. On Friday night at the Berklee Performance Center, Gerstein proved his virtuosity as well as his ability to artfully conjoin the two genres. In a performance that was declared by many of the musicians to be a tribute to their alma mater, the Berklee College of Music, Gerstein, clarinetist Anat Cohen, and several Berklee faculty members put together an animated if incohesive program that included two world premieres and a stunning rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Gerstein opened the concert alone, playing four pieces by George Gershwin and György Ligeti attacca, as if each piece were a movement in a larger work. His decision to start with three slow pieces, two Ligeti Études and Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me,” resulted in an initial lethargy, but he ignited the audience with a fiery rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” ending the piece by pressing his entire forearm against the piano keys. This introductory segment gave Gerstein a chance to show off the full range of his abilities, from blossoming, jazzy melodies to flashy ostinato fingerwork.
The second star of the night was acclaimed jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen. In her set, she played three Afro-Latin tunes over a full jazz orchestra. As Cohen explained during the concert, the three pieces came from distinct cultures in Cape Verde, Brazil, and Cuba, and each gave her the opportunity to show off her versatility and verve. Her low register was sultry and captivating, but Cohen shone the most in her uppermost altissimo range. She was able to wail over the band while maintaining an rich tone as she soared through the climatic moments in Pixinguinha’s “Ingênuo.” Her glissandos and pitch bends showed taste instead of gaudiness.
Perhaps most impressive in Cohen’s playing was her stage presence. Her facial expressions were as expressive as the music itself, and even when she wasn’t playing, she danced along to the music, shuffling her feet in a rumba.
Equally captivating as Cohen’s command of the stage were the improvised solos that peppered the performance, during which even the usually serious Gerstein cracked a smile. Faculty member and jazz innovator Gary Burton took the stage for the premiere of Chick Corea’s “The Visitors,” and his vibraphone solo was astoundingly fast and showy. As he traded solos with Gerstein, the onstage chemistry reached a high point for the night.
By the time the performers got to the closing headliner piece, Gershwin’s ubiquitous “Rhapsody in Blue,” the audience was expecting something jaw-dropping—and Cohen’s opening clarinet wail immediately met expectations. As Gerstein ripped through famous riffs alongside Cohen’s captivating solos, “Rhapsody in Blue” was clearly the perfect piece to end the night. The strong and bright brass section provided a steady backdrop for Gerstein’s flourishes. The piece was also played at a faster tempo than usual, which was startling at first but eventually lent a sense of drive and excitement.
At times, however, the performance dragged. The show was 11 pieces and almost two-and-a-half hours long, and the set list certainly could have been condensed or more united under a common theme. Some of the selections veered too heavily into standard jazz or Latin to effectively set up “Rhapsody.” And Cohen’s section, though fun, was separate thematically and atmospherically from the rest of the concert.
However, these faults were more a sign of overambition than sloppy planning, and this collaboration between Berklee College of Music alumni, faculty, and students was ultimately a success. It’s hard to tell whether Gershwin, who was inspired to write “Rhapsody in Blue” on a train ride to Boston, was thinking about this city when he wrote what he deemed a “musical kaleidoscope of America.” Through his energetic performance, Gerstein not only paid tribute to the Berklee College of Music but to the pulsing city itself.