Where does classical music end and jazz begin? That’s the question that was raised by Berklee College of Music alumnus and 2010 Gilmore Artist Award winner Kirill Gerstein at the Berklee Performance Center Friday. “An Evening With Kirill Gerstein: Rhapsody in Blue’’ had as its focal point the original 1924 jazz-band version of the George Gershwin classic, with pianist Gerstein as soloist. But that was just the climax of a thoughtfully assembled program that, with world premieres from Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau, balanced on the classical-jazz edge.
Born in Russia in 1979, Gerstein came to Berklee in 1993, after meeting Gary Burton at a jazz festival in St. Petersburg. His career since has gone more in the classical direction; he spoke of this concert as a chance to reconnect with his jazz side.
He began by interspersing György Ligeti’s Études Nos. 4 (“Fanfares’’) and 5 (“Arc-en-ciel’’) with two selections from Earl Wild’s “Seven Virtuoso Études After Gershwin,’’ “Somebody Loves Me’’ and “I’ve Got Rhythm,’’ playing the quartet without a break, as if they were the four movements of a single piece. Gerstein has characterized Wild’s arrangements as the “meeting place of Rachmaninoff and Gershwin,’’ and Rachmaninoff was suggested also in his performances of the Ligeti Études, particularly “Fanfares,’’ which can go in any direction. (Pierre-Laurent Aimard makes it sound like Debussy.) Ligeti himself described “Arc-en-ciel’’ as “almost a jazz piece’’; in Gerstein’s hands, it was.
The celebrated young Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, another Berklee alum, provided a palate cleanser with three Latin-tinged selections from her 2007 CD, “Noir.’’ After intermission came the world premieres, which Gerstein had commissioned with part of the money from his $300,000 Gilmore grant. Mehldau’s “Variations on a Melancholy Theme’’ is a 25-minute piece with a two-part theme, 14 variations, and a two-part coda. The sad waltz theme kept its shape throughout, from march to moonlight to morning after, but it was not the most memorable starting point. Corea’s “The Visitors’’ was less ambitious, a piano-and-vibraphone duet that had Burton chiming and skittering over Gerstein’s ostinatos. They followed it up with an engaging arrangement of Oscar Levant’s “Blame It on My Youth.’’
“Rhapsody in Blue’’ is familiar to classical audiences in Ferde Grofé’s 1942 arrangement for symphony orchestra, but Grofé’s first version was for Paul Whiteman’s band. Cohen started it off with the famous clarinet glissando, and Gerstein took it from there, freestyling and stutter-stepping while the band smeared and squawked. It was jazzy; more important, it was good.