Bekah S. McNeel

This weekend affords the rare opportunity to witness the breadth of what a piano can do beneath the hands of those who know it best.

Starting Thursday, internationally acclaimed pianist Kirill Gerstein joins the San Antonio Symphony as the Brahms Festival reaches its zenith. He performs with Camarata San Antonio at 7:30 on Feb. 7 at Christ Episcopal Church, then with the San Antonio Symphony on Feb. 8 and 9 at The Majestic Theatre.


Meanwhile, across the street, Bohanan’s will be swinging. Every Friday and Saturday Brent Watkins and the South Texas Jazz Quartet bring the speakeasy culture back to life with grooves that would make even the whitest hips sway. The fun-loving exterior could easily belie the serious chops of the man behind the piano.

Watkins holds a Ph.D. in classical piano performance, and has a list of honors and awards to his name. It was the demanding travel schedule of a concert pianist that eventually convinced the veteran of Carnegie Hall and the international competition circuit to settle in San Antonio and devote the bulk of his time to the music he loved most, which turned out to be jazz.

Gerstein shares this love of jazz, but after a major exploration of the style at Berklee College of Music in Boston, knew that it would require more than he had to give as a budding virtuoso in the classical world. In the life of a performing classical musician, windsprint visits like this are the norm.

Kirill Gerstein and Brent Watkins meet up to talk at the Majestic. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Kirill Gerstein and Brent Watkins meet up at the Majestic. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Watkins and Gerstein might be the yin and the yang of performance piano. Gertstein’s deep jazz background seeps out through performances of Prokofiev and Brahms. Meanwhile the finesse and polish of Watkins interminably listenable jazz bespeaks his mastery of the same composers and their like. Gerstein takes his talents across the world scene, while Watkins has set out to create a hub in the heart of downtown San Antonio. Gerstein has a love of the experimental, himself commissioning genre-bending works with great contemporary jazz artists like Chick Corea. Watkins focuses on breathing new life into beloved classics, including old dance hall tunes.

However, when the two met up to discuss the fertile relationship of their two styles, they agreed on one thing: when it comes to jazz and classical music, as Gerstein said, “the elements that are common greatly outweigh those that are different.”

“Whatever gives the human ear pleasure is the same across (different types of music),” Gerstein said.

Watkins agrees. His own commitment to pleasing human ears comes across as fluid and impromptu, but he and Gerstein also attribute this to the quality of music as it is written.

Good music “should sound both free and organized,” Gerstein said, “It’s important that the structure is felt. Even if you don’t understand it, you feel that there’s a plan. I think that’s what works with Brahms.”

San Antonio audiences will get a chance to feel the structure for themselves. My recommendation: catch both perspectives in one night. After seeing what jazz brings to Brahms at the Symphony, meander across the street to see what Brahms brings to jazz.

By all means, order a second cocktail – stay a while.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

After Beethoven, now Brahms: A Festival of Discovery January 2013

Brent Watkins Keeps the Talent as Happy as the Customers December 2012

After Dinner: San Antonio’s New Gentleman of Jazz July 2012

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.