Russian pianist Olga Kern created a sensation when she won the Gold Medal in the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (2001). Her performance of the transcendentally difficult Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in the final round left no doubt in the minds of the judges, or anyone in the audience, that she was a clear winner (although there were two gold medals given that year). She is young (born April 23, 1975), astoundingly talented, bubbling with personality, beautiful and blonde.
She is currently on a whirlwind world tour that will take her back and forth from Europe to the United States with a series of solo recitals, paired with appearances with major orchestras playing all of the Rachmaninoff concerti. Fortunately, Dallas is on this busy schedule and we will get to hear her solo recital on Thursday evening at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House.
One of the most intriguing aspects is that this recital will be in the opera house. It will be a new acoustical experience for many. Of course, we have heard singers with piano in the opera house, but, if memory serves, never a solo classical pianist.
She is playing a disappointedly standard program of Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. Why artists ignore anything written after 1900, let alone champion their colleagues who are composers, is a serious question. But that is a windmill against which music critics and writers continue to tilt with a noticeable lack of success. At least the Beethoven is a piece that is rarely heard.
"I wanted to play some Beethoven and I really love his Variations on a Theme by Salieri (WoO 73)," Kern says. "Salieri's theme is so refined, it is easy to see why Beethoven liked it."
The official name of this piece is 10 Variations in B Flat on Salieri's Air La stessa, la stessissima. The tune is from a duet in Salieri's opera Falstaff. Salieri, whose stellar reputation as one of the greatest composers of his era, was totally trashed by Peter Shaffer's outrageously fictionalized play about Mozart called Amadeus. In fact, Beethoven studied with Salieri and admired him greatly. Beethoven loved to write variations and many of his works have sets of variations imbedded in them, such as the final choral movement of his massive ninth symphony.
The much-played Carnaval by Robert Schumann will follow. Schumann's Carnaval is based on the costumed celebration before Lent—what we now call Mardi Gras. Each of the movements has a name and a different character, such as Pierrot and Coquette. Schumann himself even makes a fiery appearance, as well as his wife, Clara.
"I love to play this piece because it is a big work but made up of little pieces that are contrasting," Kern says. "You get so many changes of mood yet you still have to knit it all together."
"One of the movements is a tribute to Chopin, so I thought that it would work to follow with some real Chopin," she adds.
That will be some of the most difficult works by Chopin, his Etudes Op. 10 (Nos. 1 and 12) and Op. 25 (Nos. 1, 2 and 10). The Op. 10 pieces are early works, written when the composer was still in his teens. The No. 12 is one of his most famous and even has its own name—the Revolutionary Etude—and was written in response to Poland's failed uprising against Russia in 1831.
Chopin was trying to advance the technical ability of pianists in writing these Etudes (Exercises) and he certainly did that. These pieces are extremely difficult and had a great influence of Franz Liszt, who also took technique up a notch or two. That leads Kern to including some Liszt.
So, Kern is ending with two of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, Nos. 10 and 2. Both are well known, but No. 2 is ubiquitous. However, Kern is adding a new twist to this piece that everyone has heard at one time or another.
"Liszt said that a cadenza could be inserted in this rhapsody, so why not? Even [Vladimir] Horowitz wrote one," says Kern. "However, I am playing the Rachmaninoff cadenza. Rachmaninoff wrote it for himself but no one plays it anymore, if ever. It is not published so I spent a whole summer taking the notes down from the recording. It inserts at the end of the piece, right before the famous octaves parts."
This brings up a question. Why not improvise a cadenza of her own?
"I suppose I could have, but I like the Rachmaninoff so much and it is so much fun to play, but each time I play it is a little different. There is some Kern in it here and there," she admits.
"Moscow University always had composition class and the teachers were always pushing to write a composition quickly and to learn to improvise, but this was not my main interest. Vladislav, my son, is in second year at Juilliard is very good at improvising. Unlike at the Moscow Conservatory, he has opportunity to get closer to jazz, African-American music and rhythms that are more complex. We had a more conservative training."
Conservative it might have been, but there is no doubting how successful it turned out to be. She is the consummate artist and one of the world's great pianists, even though she is so young. Already, there is nothing that she can't play. As she ages and her take on the masterworks of the repertoire matures, she may just turn out to be one of the artists for the ages.
"Music is a different world. That is what is so exciting about a performance," she says. "The audience and I go to this different world and we inhabit it together for a moment."
She is exactly right in this concept. We are all in the world that the composer gave us to in inhabit and the performer takes us there. When the last note sounds, Kern's "different world" vanishes but we are changed for having been there with her. And there is something unifying about that shared experience. Often you hear music fans reminiscing about concerts that they attended together, even decades earlier.
One day, we just might say "Remember when we heard Olga Kern at the Winspear Opera House?"
♦ Ticket giveaway: To be entered to win a pair of tickets to Kern's concert at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, email firstname.lastname@example.org with OLGA KERN in the subject line. Put your name, address, phone number and best email contact in the body. You have until 6 p.m. Wed., Oct. 31. The winners will be contacted Wednesday evening.