Katrina Krimsky: A piano legend in Berkeley

Katrina Krimsky. Photo: courtesy Barbara Higbie
Katrina Krimsky. Photo: courtesy Barbara Higbie

For a pianist who’s been at the center of several musical revolutions, Katrina Krimsky keeps a pretty low profile. Since returning to San Francisco in 2001 after two decades in Zurich she’s performed at house concerts and benefits, often collaborating with her former Mills College student Barbara Higbie. But considering her near-legendary status as an interpreter and muse for disparate composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley, and Woody Shaw, Krimsky has mostly avoided the spotlight. This makes her rare public recital Sunday at R. Kassman Fine Pianos on Gilman Street a particularly welcome development.

The concert kicks off a new monthly piano recital series presented by Higbie, Sunday at the 88’s. Each hour-long performance is followed by an artist’s reception. Given Higbie’s vast stylistic reach, it’s not surprising that the schedule announced so far features a varied cast of piano masters, including a 75th birthday celebration for composer Mary Watkins (Dec. 7), ace accompanist/producer Frank Martin (Jan. 11), and Tammy Hall (Feb. 8), a powerfully compelling improviser usually heard accompanying top-notch vocalists like Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Linda Tillery, and Rhonda Benin.

Barbara Higbie. Photo: Katrina Krimsky. Photo: Irene Young
Barbara Higbie. Photo: Irene Young

Higbie, who lives in Albany, decided to curate the series as way of thanking Russell Kassman for his help on her lushly cinematic new album Scenes From Life. With her mix of folk, jazz, pop and West African influences, Higbie gained fame with the release of the landmark 1985 Windham Hill album Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Andy Narell and Todd Phillips. A multi-instrumentalist and captivating singer, she decided to focus on her instrumental compositions on Scenes, including several solo piano pieces.

“Russell was really helpful in making the album,” Higbie says. “He gave me the keys to his piano store and I recorded about six of the solo piano pieces there, playing some of his two-hundred thousand dollar pianos. I thought maybe we could start a series using this nice performance space, and I’d some friends to play here.”


Krimsky was an obvious choice to kick off the series in style. Since they met some three decades ago when Higbie was studying music at Mills, they’ve collaborated in various settings. Krimsky contributes some ravishing piano work on the closing track of Scenes From Life, “Neptune,” a tune she and Higbie co-composed.

Raised in Virginia and West Virginia in a creatively inclined family of Russian heritage, Krimsky was something of a prodigy. Her mother, a highly accomplished concert pianist, oversaw her keyboard education until she went off to the Eastman School of Music, where she studied with Cecile Staub Genhart. After graduating in 1959, Krimsky spent several years on faculty at the American University in Washington, D.C., while performing widely as soloist and as pianist with the Ars Nova Trio.

A devotee of new sounds, she made her way to Cologne in the mid-1960s, becoming an essential piano interpreter of composers such as Stockhausen, Luc Ferrari and Henri Pousseur. In returning to the US, she gravitated to a similarly roiling creative scene, playing the defining note on the premiere Columbia recording of Terry Riley’s epochal minimalist work “In C” and touring with La Monte Young’s Eternal Dream House ensemble.

“I managed to hit the hot spots,” Krimsky says. “I was always adventurous musically, looking for new dimensions. I was interested in new music and wanted some European flavor. I was in Cologne for two years playing Stockhausen’s music for him directly, which was enormous for me. I did a lot of concerts in Europe playing wild crazy music. That was very fun.”

Krimsky first moved to San Francisco in 1972, joining Riley and Pandit Pran Nath on faculty at Mills. She continued to collaborate with them, and found a whole new world to explore at the great North Beach jazz club Keystone Korner. Forging close friendships with masters like trumpeter Woody Shaw, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, she inspired Shaw to compose the sprightly tune “Katrina Ballerina” (which he first recorded on his classic 1975 Muse album The Moontrane).

While many prominent classically trained musicians follow jazz, precious few actually acquire the skills to improvise in jazz settings. Krimsky rose to the challenge, and ended up landing a solo piano gig at Keystone before the main acts on Fridays and Saturdays. Starting at 7 p.m., she would sometimes find herself playing to an empty house, but all it takes is one listener to radically change the vibrations in the room, especially when that listener is avant-garde patriarch Cecil Taylor.

“He came in early and sat down in the front row,” Krimsky recalls. “My improvisation was developing at that time so I played classical music for Cecil. I went through as much repertoire as I had, and then I had no choice but to improvise. Afterwards he was extremely supportive. Whenever he came through the Bay Area we would spend time together.”

Honing her skills as an improviser unleashed her creativity as a composer. While known as one of the foremost interpreters of the great Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, she’s created an enthralling body of original work, such as “Four Moons of Jupiter,” “Elise’s Dream” and “Ambrosia.”

“I was very influenced by McCoy Tyner,” Krimsky says. “I like to connect classical and improvisational music together to bring new life. My work all comes out of improvisation. When I write it gets more structured, but I’m really an improvising composer.”

Married to the physicist (and violinist) Hans Siegmann, who was the project director at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, she moved to Zurich with him in the early 1980s and eventually became a Swiss citizen. This chapter of her European career was marked by collaborations with several free jazz masters. She recorded a thrilling duo session for ECM with the powerful British saxophonist Trevor Watts, Stella Malu, and performed widely with German bassist Peter Kowald.

While she played at numerous jazz festivals around Europe, Krimsky gave up teaching, which “freed me to compose and perform a lot,” she says. “Being a foreigner in a new land with a new language, it opened up a lot of dimensions. At the same time it was very isolating. I had a lot of time to develop my music.”

For Sunday’s recital she’ll be mixing her originals with contemporary and classical repertoire. “I’m going to play some Villa-Lobos, some Rachmaninoff, and some Chopin. Other than that, I’ll mostly play my own compositions that I’ve recorded. And ‘Katrina Ballerina’ by Woody Shaw, which he wrote for me.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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