As Kirill Gerstein remembers it, it was over coffee early in 2011 that he asked composer Timothy Andres to write a new piece for him. Gerstein had won the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award the year before and was using a portion of the money to commission works from a variety of composers. “I did ask you while we were having coffee,” he said to Andres during a recent interview on a conference call. “I wasn’t just gonna ask you by e-mail.”
Andres, who goes by Timo (pronounced TIM-oh), remembers that meeting differently. “See, I thought that was my audition. I thought you were like, I gotta make sure this guy’s for real. Kirill had this very roundabout way about it.”
No, no, insisted Gerstein. The invitation came at that coffee meeting. “It was very good coffee, wherever we were.”
The piece that Andres eventually wrote for Gerstein is called “Old Friend.” The title refers to Chopin, and more specifically to the composer’s Third Scherzo, not to the pianist. But you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. During an hourlong conversation, Andres and Gerstein picked up and ran with each other’s thoughts, made jokes, and argued good-naturedly over whether Arnold Schoenberg could write idiomatically for the piano. The dynamic wasn’t far off from that of longtime acquaintances.
“Old Friend” will have its Boston premiere on Friday, part of Gerstein’s Celebrity Series recital that also includes music by Haydn and Schumann, as well as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It will be only the third performance of Andres’s piece. When they met, he knew Gerstein’s name but nothing about his musicianship. They got together soon afterward to read through some material; Andres also went to hear Gerstein live.
“One of the things that I heard him play that was most impressive was Liszt’s B minor Sonata,” Andres said. “Liszt is not a composer that’s particularly close to my heart, but I was totally enraptured by the performance. There was this interpretive approach that Kirill brings to everything he plays. . . . It tells you something about what he thinks about the piece without being didactic, which is quite a trick.”
When he began writing the piece in early 2012, Andres took as his starting point the Chopin Scherzo — or rather, an idea about the piece. He’d always been dissatisfied with the way pianists played it, which emphasized surface beauty at the expense of the innovative harmonic and rhythmic transformations underneath. This was also something about which he felt a kinship with Gerstein.
So Andres began playing through the Chopin his own way, and from that he extracted what he calls “a skeletal melody” that became the basis for “Old Friend.” It begins with the pianist playing that melody at opposite ends of the piano, the hands slowly approaching one another. Then the process begins again, and soon the pianists’ hands are flying over the length of the keyboard. The music quickly becomes dense and virtuosic, and it remains so almost throughout the piece’s 14 minutes.
The considerable technical demands were a shift for Andres. “I’ve been coming back around to piano virtuosity over the past few years, after a period in college and grad school where I deliberately wrote pieces that you could, like, play with one hand. Just because I was tired of the whole piano-jock thing. And now I think I’ve been figuring out a way to reintroduce that kind of instrumental virtuosity in a way that’s interesting to me.”
He was also confident that Gerstein could handle the obstacles, though “it wasn’t like, I’m going to write the hardest piece ever,” he said.
“Well,” Gerstein broke in, “there is a compromising tweet out there in the Twittersphere when you were writing it. Something like, ‘I’m writing this piece for Kirill Gerstein — I’m gonna make it as hard as possible.’ Which I think you stayed quite close to,” he added, laughing.
It’s not surprising that the pianist’s first impression of “Old Friend” — besides gratitude that Andres had completed it on time — was “Wow, this is really hard. This is not something that I can sit down and read through. And when I was practicing it there were some minutes of despair, which is typical of learning something virtuosic. You think, how is this going to work?
“And the lucky thing, when the composer knows what they’re doing,” he continued, “is that after some minutes or hours or days, you see, oh, that works. And this is one of the fascinating things with virtuosity — this foresight that even if it doesn’t work at first, eventually it will work.”
Having played “Old Friend” twice, Gerstein is convinced that it works — not only as an artistic entity but for the audience as well. Part of what makes it effective is the fact that “there is a clear and quite followable idea, even for the nonmusician. There has to be a good balance of complexity and clarity of the main concept. And I think that’s done quite starkly in Timo’s piece.”
What’s exciting to Gerstein is that even though the Celebrity Series concert will be only the third performance of “Old Friend,” the little nuances and variations that make each performance unique were already emerging. “I’m sure I will play it differently in Boston. That’s the advantage of standard repertoire — you live with pieces for a very long time, so they have a chance to age and inform themselves.”
“You’ve been playing ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ since you were a kid,” Andres interjected, “and it’s had that long to kind of stew around.”
“Yeah,” agreed Gerstein, “and it’s nice to have that process start with something like Timo’s piece, to have it enter one’s mind and also one’s physiology. Let it get a bit forgotten in the nervous system, and then you get back to it and something feels different because you’re two months older and two months more experienced.” Old friend indeed.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.