Albuquerque, N.M. — The final round of the Olga Kern International Piano Competition took place on Saturday evening at Popejoy Hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico. Four contestants played complete performances of their chosen concerto with the New Mexico Philharmonic, conducted by guest conductor Vladimir Kern, the brother of Olga Kern and who has a similarly distinguished career.
The contestants chose their concerto quite some time ago when they submitted their repertoire for all rounds of the competition. We could have easily ended up with four finalists playing the same concerto. However, as it turned out, all four chose something different. Thus, we heard a fascinating concert: Beethoven’s third concerto, Prokofiev’s second and third concerti, and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. One interesting fact is that all four concerti were written by composers who were also virtuoso pianists and for their own performances.
Joshua-Allen Rupley, who is from Albuquerque, was first up with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37. Perhaps it was a case of nerves, playing in front of his hometown audience, but Rupley got off to a tentative start and never quite recovered. He is an excellent pianist and played beautifully in the preliminary and semifinal rounds. His performance was marred by errors early on, but to his credit, he continued with renewed concentration. He set a jolly tempo in the last movement and each time the rondo theme returned, he approached it a little differently. The coda, marked Presto, brought the performance to a happier end with a switch into C major.
Anna Dmytrenko, who was born in the Ukraine and now lives in Germany, took on the most difficult concerto of the evening, and maybe the most difficult in the repertoire: Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16. Considering its formidable technical challenges, it is hard to believe that when the orchestral score was destroyed in a fire, the composer rewrote much of the concerto and simplified it. The original must have been a monster to play. Even in this less-challenging version, few pianists play it and even the composer himself had troubles with it later in his career.
Dmytrenko was impressive from the start. Prokofiev writes long and difficult in the extreme cadenzas, in both the first and last movements. In the first movement, the cadenza occupies at least half of the movement and Dmytrenko did an amazing job with this nearly impossible music, some of which is notated in three staves because of its complexity. It was a highlight of the evening when the orchestra rejoined her with the rude brass at top volume, two cymbals crashing, the timpani roaring and the remainder of the orchestra screaming up and down scales. The scherzo assigns the pianist a constant stream of fast notes with the two hands playing at the octave. It is an endurance test and Dmytrenko performed with flair. In the last movement, the pianist is asked to make huge leaps from one end of the keyboard to the next and she took the risky approach of attacking the notes from high above the keyboard, adding to the drama.
Overall, she gave a fine performance of a concerto that many great pianists won’t even approach. The only problem was that she didn’t relax and let the music flow naturally. It is completely understandable, of course. Such a piece requires constant concentration. But, it was obvious that she had mastered its transcendental difficulties. By keeping too tight a rein on the music, it wasn’t allowed to run free in the wild manner that the composer intended.
After intermission, Chen Guang played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26. This is the most popular of the composer’s five piano concerti. Unlike the second, the piano and the orchestra are more equal partners. The opening is deceptive, with two lonely clarinets paying a slightly mournful duet, but it doesn’t last long. Guang took full advantage of Prokofiev’s sudden burst of speedy octaves and didn’t lose energy, even in the slow movement, right up to the last note.
The second movement is a theme and a set of variations. By the very nature of the form, this movement requires a change of mood with each variation. Guang handled this quite nicely without falling into the common trap of making them sound like separate pieces. He always had the final goal in mind as he moved through the composer’s various flights of sarcasm and backbeats.
Prokofiev referred to the last movement, Allegro ma non troppo, as an argument between the piano and the orchestra. Sometimes they are even in different keys. I was too far away to see how Guang played the famously difficult double-note arpeggio runs; frequently pianists will substitute a glissando, but however he played it is was effective. Overall, this was a first-class performance of a difficult concerto and Guang was happy to share it with us.
The final concerto on the program was a perennial audience favorite: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 45, played by Anastasiya Naplekova, a Ukrainian pianist now based in the United States. This is a set of 24 variations on one of the solo caprices Paganini wrote for solo violin and it has frequently been used for variations by other composers. Although the variations are all different, the composer grouped them into the semblance of a three-movement concerto. The thirteenth variation is the most famous and is often heard by itself. It is actually the theme, played upside down, slowly and with a lush orchestration.
Naplekova played the piece beautifully and conquered all of its technical difficulties. Even Rachmaninoff himself occasionally said that he was afraid to play it. This piece was written in 1934 and Rachmaninoff was writing in a musical style that was considered haplessly old-fashioned. After all, Stravinsky’s revolutionary The Rite of Spring was premiered in 1913, nearly two decades earlier. Naplekova played all the notes but what was lacking in her performance was a big dose of excitement that Rachmaninoff requires to save him from descending into sentimentality. The piece needs to look forward to 1950 instead of backwards to 1900.
I later discovered that Naplekova was suffering with a major cold and couldn’t medicate herself properly before performing in the finals because such medications make you drowsy and make it difficult to concentrate. Thus, she performed with her cold symptoms at full blast. Under those circumstances, it is quite remarkable that she was able to perform at all,let alone do such a good job with a very difficult piece. So it is little wonder that her performance of the variations with the orchestra in the finals lacked sparkle and the energy she lavished on Rachmaninoff’s second sonata in the semifinal round.
Mention must be made of Vladimir Kern’s conducting, which was nothing short of miraculous. It is obvious why he is having a big career. His beat is clear and expressive and he is a master of podium technique.
Except for the Beethoven, Kern’s assignment was three of the most difficult concerti in the repertoire to conduct. Time signatures and pacing changes constantly. Usually, even with an orchestra experienced with these pieces, they require some substantial rehearsal to properly put them with the soloist’s intentions. Kern didn’t even have time to run them all the way through. He was super-precise in his movements and in constant eye contact with everyone in the orchestra and the players stuck to him like a lifeline. When things started to go off the rails, Kern didn’t let that happen by an act of sheer will.
The New Mexico Philharmonic was another surprise. This is an excellent orchestra and they were remarkable, which would have been praiseworthy under any circumstances. But in this situation, they rose to the occasion. I am certain that everyone was relieved when the concert was over, because of the intense concentrating required for an under-rehearsed concert. But they did more than survive; they greatly impressed both the local audience and the visitors who were hear for the competition.
Olga Kern and her board of directors can be very proud of this inaugural effort. If anything went wrong, I certainly didn’t notice and I was there for every moment. All contestants were finished artists and the difference between them was subtle at best. The next event is already eagerly awaited.
» Reviews of the semifinals are here
» The list of winners is here
» Our complete coverage of the Olga Kern International Piano Competition is here
» TheaterJones, which is based in Dallas-Fort Worth, covered the entire Olga Kern International Piano competition because we feel it has the makings of an important national event in a discipline we cover, and that sadly, other media care less and less about. We're also interested because of Kern's connection to Fort Worth, where she was the co-Gold Medalist at the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001.