How to love classical music when you hate it


Karen Krizanovich discovers the wonders of a different kind of piano man – Kirill Gerstein

How to love classical music when you hate it

Oh to forget those long boring years of costly education and stay dumb. “What good is classical music to me?” I say in my loudest American voice. It reminds me of hold music, of the spa, of bad dressage freestyles. Classical music was something my mother liked so I didn’t until I heard Wendy Carlos make it interesting.

Then I met Kirill Gerstein. He is the best pianist on earth and he’s messed up all the fun of hating classical music. He’s tall and imperious and I thought he’d be an ass, but he was so disappointing in the disappointment category. He was actually funny, articulate and secure. He was a steamroller crossed with a cinnamon bun. I followed him on Instagram.

“Oh, he’s one of the new trend,” she says of Gerstein, “the new young male pianists.” Now I feel I should get even more excited because he’s part of a trend

This is a guy who knows one Steinway from another Steinway without checking the labels. He has long fingers and I am sure he time-travels. So, when I get invited to see him play (at the Barbican Centre earlier this year), I can’t exactly say no. But I got the fear. You know, the “cultural event” shivers you get when you’re not sure if you can get an aisle seat. The shakes you get when you might be seated next to someone who smells, or that you’ll injure your own vanity by applauding so much your palms will look like a baboon’s ass by morning. But I go to the dry cleaners, get my nice clothes, and I go, deciding that even if all my worst fears came true, seeing Gerstein play would be worth it.

Not only do I get an aisle seat with the best view of all, but I scamper out to find the Barbican bar serves Henners Brut from East Sussex, so I don’t have to sneer at Prosecco. Before taking my seat, I see a friend – an actual friend – from the gym. Her husband is far too tall for her but she’s terribly nice all the same. “Oh, he’s one of the new trend,” she says of Gerstein, “the new young male pianists.” Now I feel I should get even more excited because he’s part of a trend. Ooh.

Kirill Gerstein by Marco Borggreve

Gerstein strides onto the stage and defers to the first violin. He’s so civil, reserved. I don’t know the protocol for all this, but I assume it’s all for one and one for most. He’s wearing a turtleneck, not tie and tails, so there’s no flicking of the jacket as he sits. Then, the whole stage becomes part of the world’s most living MP4. It’s been a long time, if ever – does Kraftwerk count? – I’ve listened to live music without having to critique it or been dragged to it by mates. This time, the playing is better than what I’d hear on Spotify. It’s better than what would be on the car radio. I’m not talking fidelity, I’m talking Gerstein, in point. I’m sitting stage left, so I can’t actually see his hands. I contact him on Instagram, “I can’t see you playing. I think you’re pretending.”

He plays like his fingers are water. There is no gasp of time between tones that sounds as if it shouldn’t be there but the music – this is Beethoven’s 2nd Concerto – is otherworldly. Not only could it not have been invented by a human but it can’t be played by one either. And yet, I’m hearing fluidity that is beyond the machine, beyond the computer, beyond what I thought was possible by any means.

When he finishes, I applaud. Everyone’s clapping very loudly but there is no hooting or whooping so I didn’t. I am reminded of the last time I went to church for communion and shot into a shorter line as if it was security at the airport. This time I follow what everyone else is doing. I applaud. And I applaud.

The next morning my hands look like a baboon’s ass. C

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