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Musical daredevil: Pianist takes big risks for Houston Symphony, debuts $140K concert puppy

3 Kirill Gerstein prepares piano for Houston Symphony performance September 2013
Kirill Gerstein will perform Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Houston Symphony. Photo by Joel Luks
5 Kirill Gerstein prepares piano for Houston Symphony performance September 2013
Gerstein prefers the mechanism of his piano to be calibrated for maximum control and sensitivity. Photo by Joel Luks
1 Kirill Gerstein prepares piano for Houston Symphony performance September 2013
Gerstein's choices also open opportunities for miscalculations during performance. Photo by Joel Luks
2 Kirill Gerstein prepares piano for Houston Symphony performance September 2013
Gerstein geeks out with piano technician James Kozak in a rehearsal room at Jones Hall. Photo by Joel Luks
9 Kirill Gerstein prepares piano for Houston Symphony performance September 2013
Kozak adjusts the piano mechanism to Gerstein's preferences. Photo by Joel Luks
8 Kirill Gerstein prepares piano for Houston Symphony performance September 2013
Not every pianist is as well versed as Gerstein in the art and science of a grand piano. Photo by Joel Luks
7 Kirill Gerstein prepares piano for Houston Symphony performance September 2013
Gerstein will debut a new grand piano in this Houston Symphony program. Photo by Joel Luks

"I prefer the drop to be a bit less — this is too generous for my taste," Kirill Gerstein says while gently depressing a piano key repeatedly, testing for its spring, response and tactile feel.

The key drop is the distance a piano key travels when it's pressed. Piano builders recommend that the key drop measures between 1/2 inch and 3/8 inch.

Consider pianist Kirill Gerstein a stunt man of sorts, although that may not be readily apparent for classical music audiences. Gerstein prefers the mechanism of his instruments to be calibrated for maximum control and sensitivity such that it maximizes both the keyboard's virile power and sound color spectrum. The responsive setting, however, also poses an increased risk. Gerstein doesn't play it safe —  musically speaking.

Gerstein is in town to perform the famed Tchaikovsky Piano Concert No. 1 with the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall. Guest maestro Peter Oundjian leads a program, set for Thursday through Sunday, that includes Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun and Respighi's Pines of Rome.

"I think of pianos like race cars," he explains. "I like my pianos to feel as if I have a manual transmission on a fast car rather than as if I am driving an automatic family car, comfortably cruising around the neighborhood."

In a large rehearsal room in Jones Hall, Gerstein geeks out with piano technician James Kozak about topics that are only shared by those with a penchant for the inner workings of the keyboard.

"I find that the after touch could be a tad less," Gerstein adds. "What is the blow distance?"

"I haven't measured the striking distance yet," Kozak responds. "But, if I lower the hammer line, you'll have more of a blow distance, which means the piano will be stronger. I can change that."

 "I think of pianos like race cars. I like my pianos to feel as if I have a manual transmission on a fast car rather than as if I am driving an automatic family car."

The blow distance is the gap between the piano hammer at rest and the strings. Over time, the felt attached to the hammer of some keys can develop imperfections from continued use. The result is uneven tone and unequal response, something that compels pianists to compensate by changing the force exerted on weaker keys.

All these decisions are designed to synchronize the physical sensation of tickling the ivories to the sound produced, which allows the performer to accurately communicate their aesthetic convictions to listeners.

The risk taken by Gerstein, though, is that his choices also open opportunities for miscalculations.

There's a certain moment in piano playing, much different that wind and string instruments, when the performer no longer has control over the movement of the components. When the after touch — the precise instant when the hammer escapes the framework just before it hits the string, after which it lowers so it's ready to deploy again — is reduced, this maneuver happens later. To the musician, it feels like a slight letting go of resistance, often described as a gentle thump.

"The smaller tolerance makes the piano quicker in how it reacts," Gerstein says. "But that means there's more room for error on my part."

Not every pianist is as well versed as Gerstein in the art and science of a grand piano.

Gerstein had been intrigued by the physics of the piano since he was young. Frustrations that came from having to perform on less-than-stellar pianos during travel compelled him to give in to his curiosity.

"Race car drivers don't necessary fix their engines, but they have a good awareness of how the whole machine works," he explains. "The knowledge informs how they interact with their cars. I'm surprised that a lot of pianists are very busy with the music, but the mysterious space between the keyboard and the strings? Most have no idea what happens there."

 "The pianos that have open 'mouths' and 'eyes' — like choosing the most active puppy in a room, the one that's already barking and climbing on everyone else — that's the piano I picked."

A friend who owned a piano shop in Freiburg, Germany, extended an invitation to apprentice in his workshop. Gerstein spent many early mornings and countless hours mastering everything from basic regulation to fine tuning.

In case of a piano emergency, Gerstein has the skills to help himself. But the benefit, he says, is being able to pass on his wish list to piano technicians accurately.

A new $140,000 puppy

His expertise was duly noted by Houston Symphony officials. When officials at the art presenter were considering making an investment in a new grand piano that would replace one of the two lost in a flood during Tropical Storm Allison, they looked to Gerstein for guidance. Funded by the Houston Symphony Central and Bay Area leagues, a 9-foot, Model D, Steinway concert grand that typically retails for $140,000 was purchased in March at the factory in New York City after Gerstein tested a handful of potential candidates.

"I suggested this piano because I thought it would complement the acoustics at Jones Hall," he says. "In my experience, there are some pianos that have a hunger and readiness to play. The ones that have open 'mouths' and 'eyes' — like choosing the most active puppy in a room, the one that's already barking and climbing on everyone else — that's the piano I picked."

Gerstein will debut this new grand piano in this Houston Symphony program that launches its centennial classical season. Watch the video (above) for CultureMap's exclusive behind-the-scenes interview with Gerstein and Kozak.
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The Houston Symphony presents "Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto" at Jones Hall on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start $25 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-7575.

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