Albuquerque, N.M. — Olga Kern, the Russian pianist who was co-winner of the Gold Medal at the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is a newsmaker in the world of piano competitions. When she won that award in 2001—she shared it with Uzbeki pianist Stanislav Ioudenitch—she became the first woman in 32 years to win the Gold. Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz, who won Gold in 1969, is the only other woman to have taken this award.
Since 2001, Kern has taken her fame in the piano world and established one of her own. She is both Artistic Director and President of the Jury for the Olga Kern International Piano Competition, running Nov. 13-20, with competition beginning Nov. 14 for 21 contestants from around the world (originally 24; four dropped out just before the event, and one alternate stepped in).
The surprise is that the quadrennial event takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, joining a handful of other American piano competitions, including the two top American events in Cleveland and Fort Worth. The Cliburn is, of course, one of the world’s most prestigious, rivaling the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the first of which Van Cliburn won in 1958 in the middle of the Cold War. The young Fort Worth-based pianist became a national hero. He launched the Cliburn in 1962.
Kern is a regular soloist with the New Mexico Philharmonic and she was approached by Marian Tanau, the Executive Director of the orchestra, and Dr. Frederick Fiber, a local ENT-otolaryngologist, donor and dedicated classical music buff. Tanau suggested a competition as a way to get the message that there is a terrific orchestra in Albuquerque and put the city on the international musical map. Kern readily agreed to lend her stellar name and even serve as President of the Jury.
Kern got some experience of being in charge of a competition jury this past July when she headed up the jury for the 2015 Cliburn International Amateur Competition for talented pianists who earn their living doing something else.
Albuquerque is one of Kern’s musical homes. In a January interview in the Fort Worth Star- Telegram, she said: “I play there almost every year. Everyone knows me and their support in such a big endeavor was assured. New Mexico never had something like this before. Of course, Santa Fe has the big opera festival every summer and chamber music as well. But this is something completely different and will shine a new light on the state’s endeavors in the performing arts.”
Potential contestants, who have to be between the ages of 18 and 32, were required to send in a video. A panel of jurists reviewed them and choose 24 of the very best. When they come to Albuquerque this week, they will each play a solo recital in the preliminary and semifinal rounds at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and four finalists will play a concerto with the New Mexico Philharmonic at Popejoy Hall.
The selection jurors were Larry Graham, David Maraček, and Golda Vainberg-Tatz, the latter of whom is also on the competition jury. She joins six others on the competition jury: R. Douglas Sheldon, Fali Pvri, Akemi Alink-Yamamoto, Constantine Orbelian, Konstantin Scherbakov and Vladimir Kern, who is Olga’s brother and the guest conductor for the final round.
They will also have to learn a newly composed piece of music that was supplied right before the competition started. This first year it was written specifically for Kern’s event by Rory Boyle, a Scottish composer and professor at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland.
This will test the contestants’ ability in two important areas. First, it will show how quickly they can learn a new and challenging piece. But more importantly, it will show how they approach and interpret a piece that they have never heard before. Every existing piece is heavily recorded by many pianists. YouTube is full of performances of even the most obscure work. But the best outcome is that it will encourage them to seek out and play works by living composers, something that is very important to Kern.
The top prizewinners will receive a cash prize and some bookings to help launch their careers. They will also have Kern to advise them. She understands how to negotiate the difficulties of a career filled with lots of pressure, concerts, airports and hotels, as her concert career has grown strong since her experience at the Cliburn 15 years ago.
“The most valuable [asset] the Cliburn Gold Medal brought to me was the mentoring I received from Van Cliburn himself. It also put me on the road for a constant series of concerts,” said Kern in a recent phone call. “The best way to thank him is pass on his wisdom to the next generations of pianists. This competition will give me the opportunity to do this.”
As for prizes, the first-place winner will receive an $11,000 cash prize, a professional recording on the Steinway & Sons label and concert engagements throughout Europe and the United States. The second-place winner will receive $7,500. The third-place winner will receive $5,000, and the fourth-place winner will receive $2,000. There will be $1,000 awards for the Best Contemporary Piece Prize winner and the Audience Award winner, as well as a $500 Aspiration Special Prize and several $500 Semi-Finalist Honorable Mentions.
The new competition won’t lack for aspirants. There is an amazing crop of brilliant teen and pre-teen pianists out there. In 2015, the first Cliburn Junior Piano Competition—for pianists too young for the big one—played some mindboggling and note-perfect performances of the most challenging repertoire. The annual PianoTexas International Academy and Festival at Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University regularly has students who also impress.
With all this technical perfection out there, the jury is looking for something deeper than just the notes. It is an understanding of what the notes are saying—the composer’s message—that sets apart the true artists. This is something that cannot be taught; it has to be intuitive and natural. It is a subtle difference, for sure. While a spectacular performance is obvious to everyone, only someone who knows the piece intimately and has performed it themselves, such as Kern, can discern that special something who sets the winner’s performances apart from all of the others.
Hopefully we will find the next Olga Kern this week.
» TheaterJones, which is based in Dallas-Fort Worth, is covering the entire competition this week in our special section, because we feel it has the makings of an important national event. Look for timely reviews of every performance, plus more features and interviews.