Kirill Gerstein Piano Recital

The Duke Performances piano recital series continued in Baldwin Auditorium Nov. 9, with Kirill Gerstein playing a well-considered program that began delightfully and progressed toward the sublime. Gerstein’s warm sound, his joyous, jazz-inflected explorations and unguarded emotionality–as well as his thundering power and silken delicacy–made this one of the most satisfying piano concerts of my experience.

Kirill Gerstein. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Kirill Gerstein.
Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Gerstein began with a late piano work by Josef Hadyn, the Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII: 6, from 1793, a piece whose emotions are barely controlled by its clever interlacing musical structures. The image that came to mind was that of a dark red briar rose restrained by the delicate tendrils of a twining clematis vine with its froth of pale flowers. The minor theme shaded from melancholy to grief, near the end pulsing with rhapsodic sorrow; the major theme with its many trilling decorations on a calm orderly trellis brings us back to acceptance and peace, if not joy.

That Gerstein excels in generating imagery from sound was confirmed by his performance of Robert Schuman’s fantastic Carnaval, Little Scenes on Four Notes, op. 9, from 1834. The twenty short tone-pictures and dances that make up Carnaval are all over the map, but generally are quite animated. By the end of the final “March des ‘Davidbündler’ contre les Philistines,” I felt I’d spent an evening drinking in the sights at a marvelous fair amid crowds of Commedia characters, artists, waltzing lovers and fast-moving butterflies, all resplendent with color. Some of the sections are well known, but I’d never heard the piece performed entire–it is thrilling. Section 11, “Chopin” (Agitato) provided a connecting point to the program’s first work after intermission.

Old Friend, by Timo Andres (b. 1985) received its world premiere with, strangely, no fanfare. The old friend of its title is Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3. Andres, commissioned by the Gilmore Piano Foundation, wrote it for Gerstein (who won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010). Although it contains what Andres calls “the skeletal melody” from the Chopin work (see his blog for his own writing about the writing of Old Friend), the main impression received from first hearing is that of  sizzling energies following their own courses–like the the motions of  particles within an atom. It would clearly take a virtuoso to play this. It begins with right and left hands moving towards each other from the extreme ends of the keyboard, but then they must cross and re-cross, the sounds tangling and re-ordering themselves. Speeding and slowing, clashing and harmonizing, the music tumbles along in increasing complexity, before spreading out like a quiet little wave. The piece is not very long, but you come out of it feeling like you’ve journeyed across the galaxy and back.

So, after that abstract adventure, we go to Pictures at an Exhibition, the grand 1874 work by Modest Mussorgsky, which is about as pictorial as music can get. In the spring of that year, Mussorgsky had helped organize a show of works by his late friend, Victor Hartmann (see images of the pictures here); he then composed a musical record of the experience of seeing them in exhibition. There are ten pictures, and the promenade that opens the work repeats three times between groups of paintings, and is reprised in the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I’ve listened to this music so often that I can hardly go to a museum without hearing it as I traverse the galleries, and I’ve heard it performed more than once (most recently by Leif Ove Andsnes), but I’ve never seen the pictures with such clarity and color. They were so full of life! I think Gerstein’s jazz training gives his interpretation a vivacity that other versions lack (this holds for the Schumann piece as well). This liveliness was particularly notable where it is most needed, in (5) “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells;” (7) “Limoges: The Marketplace;” and (9) “Baba Yaga.” The wild energy of the witch with her crazy cackling gives way to the rich large sounds that build the “Great Gate of Kiev,” and the whole exhibition winds up with resonant grandeur.

I didn’t think there could be an encore after that, but following repeated ovations, Gerstein returned to the piano and gave us an exquisite goodnight: Rachmaninoff’s Melodie Op.3 No.3. So lovely. We will hope for a Rachmaninoff recording, and a return engagement at Duke by this pianist of prodigious technique and passionate expression.

Common Wealth at Common Ground: MANY MOONS

This review was originally published in IndyWeek on Nov. 13, 2013, and on

Common Wealth on the rise with Many Moons


J Evarts as Meg in MANY MOONS. Photo: Alex Maness.

J Evarts as Meg in MANY MOONS. Photo: Alex Maness.

Not content to be one of the Triangle’s more formidable actors in addition to his IBM career job, Gregor McElvogue founded a theater cooperative. Common Wealth Endeavors grew from the idea that the true common wealth generated by the former British Empire can be measured in language, the English now in use around the globe by people in very different cultures. McElvogue is a British national, born in Singapore and trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. He formed Common Wealth Endeavors to bring plays—stories—from the countries of the British Commonwealth to the stages of North Carolina’s Triangle.

Many Moons, playing at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre (no relation), is Common Wealth’s second full production, and it’s a stunner. The first work by young British playwright Alice Birch, it was originally produced in 2011; this production is its U.S. premiere. McElvogue directs the beautifully crafted script with great delicacy and a finely calibrated sense of timing. We are coaxed into such sympathy with the four characters that, even when their grievous shortcomings are revealed, we are inclined to accept that such shortcomings are part of the spectrum of human behavior. We cannot merely revile the characters as one-dimensional monsters—we know them as complex people, full of longing for love.

Some very tough stuff comes out in this unbroken 110-minute play, and anyone who has lost a child to pedophilia or death will want to be prepared, just as a rape survivor must be mentally fortified for portrayals of rape. Birch does not condone what her characters do; she gives their actions context that allows us to feel pity as well as righteous rage. And if we can take it, that makes us better humans.

The action is described in turn by the very pregnant 30-something Meg (J Evarts); the 24-year-old, always smiling, semi-ingénue Juniper (Mary Guthrie); the 30-ish Ollie (G. Scott Heath), brilliant but not socially adept; and the remorseful 60-something Robert (David Sweeney). It takes place on a single hot day, July 18, in Stoke Newington, a village in the vast London metropolis.

All of them are present on Cory Livengood’s simple, effective set; each is put in motion by changes in Hillary Rosen’s active lighting. They shift places as they tell their converging stories, and the language is such that we see their homes and yards and streets and cafes overlaid on the set’s plain geometries. The four are neighbors; they’ve seen one another and know of one another, though they’re acquainted only in the most minimal way. But July 18 is the day of the local fête, or neighborhood fair, and on that day their paths cross with devastating effect. The playwright is not ambiguous, but she leaves it to us to infer the results of the stories’ culminating actions.

The level of self-control achieved by the playwright and director is matched by the actors, all of whom are fully in character and leave indelible impressions on the viewer. Evarts’ portrayal of Meg is the best work I’ve seen from her. Sweeney excelled at showing his character’s simultaneous strength and weakness. Guthrie kept Juniper’s frothy belief in the good in everyone right up to the top of the glass—until the very moment of its complete deflation. And Heath, as the sympathetic young Ollie whose crime you must despise, breaks your heart while twisting your gut.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The bard, the gods and a modern tragedy.”

The production continues Nov. 14-16.

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