Fort Worth — On Thursday evening, Olga Kern opened the new concert hall in the Renzo Piano Pavilion at Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum. The concert, under the auspices of the Van Cliburn Foundation, was sold out, as was the repeat performance on Friday. Kern was one of the Gold Medalists of the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (she tied with Stanislav Ioudenitch) and has since gone on to a stellar international career.
The hall itself is quite beautiful in a stark, minimalist way. The back wall is solid poured concrete with a sectional glass wall in front of it. The sides of the hall are also poured concrete, but are softened by a collage of wooden panels that reportedly are able to tune the acoustics. The huge concrete wall that forms a backdrop to the stage is quite an imposing structure. The fact that it goes all the way from floor to ceiling, I'm guessing maybe 80 feet high and wide, makes it feel a little like a prison wall out of a neo-noir film, or perhaps the set for some Regietheater production of Electra or Wozzeck.
The way the glass is situated in front of the concrete has the added benefit of reflecting the stage. In this case, it caught Kern at the piano from the back side. Thus, you were able to see her in the round. Further, one upper series of glass panels tilted and that reflected the golden harp of the inside of the Steinway concert grand. Whether these reflections were planned or serendipitous doesn't matter.
Amongst the cold gray concrete, warmer wood flooring and shiny black piano, Kern added a splash of vibrant color in elegant and fitted evening gowns, first blue satin and later scarlet, with a gilded kick panels that started at the knees. The effect was quite magical.
But visuals, striking as they were, quickly faded into irrelevance once Kern started to play.
We live in a world where, every spring, a new crop of perfect pianists pop out of graduate programs around the world. They all have impeccable technique and there isn't a challenge in the repertoire that remains unconquered. Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, once only attempted by a brave few, now appears on undergraduate recitals. Sadly, they are differentiated, not by originality, but by an occasional note splat or other minor snafu that pianists of Arthur Rubenstein’s generation accepted as a small payment for exuberance.
What you begin to realize, especially when you sit through a gauntlet such as the grueling Cliburn competition, is that the ability to make music out of a collection of notes is a rare gift indeed. It is this gift that we witnessed when Kern began her program, whether you completely agreed with her interpretations or not (I did, for the most part). This ability cannot be taught, and it places her in a rarified circle containing just a few exceptional artists.
The piano in the Piano, which Kern helped select, is in shockingly new condition. It was obvious from the first notes that it was factory-fresh, not a good thing, and that no one had supervised the required break-in period, if there even was one. This was a tragic oversight because Kern had to constantly adapt her technique to accommodate the stiff action and try to mitigate the brittle sound made by the virgin hammers. She accomplished this with consummate skill, but it changed how she intended to play the concert. It's hard-edged sound also gave a false impression of both the instrument, which will improve with use, and the acoustics of the new performance space, which remain untested.
That said, there are some generalities of Kern's playing that can be proffered. First on the list is her ability to make the piano, which is in reality a percussion instrument, beautifully sing a sustained line. Sometimes she accomplished this by imitating singers, allowing the line to breath; other times channeling a violin, with its bow allowing for long uninterrupted melodies.
Kern also has the uncanny ability to bring out just the right note or phrase at the precisely right time. Many times, she sends you back to the score with a “has that always been there” query. This extends to passages where she accompanies herself (melody in one hand and an accompaniment figure in the other, for example.) This is not as easy to do as it might sound because she achieves the effect so noticeably. It requires a touch of temporary schizophrenia, since the pianist has to give each voice it own character, so it feels like collaboration.
The aforementioned ability to express the character of the music at any given moment is another of her gifts. She was, when the music demanded it serious, wistful, humorous, angry, proud, boastful, shy, romantic, restrained, expansive—the list goes on.
Another trait that sets her apart: She is conservative when it comes to the use of the sustaining pedal. She rarely uses it in passagework. Of course, her clean playing of even the most difficult passages doesn't require the blur it can offer lesser players. She will also uses it like a sprinkle of salt or to connect two notes. Other times, she soaks the music, allowing the pitches to meld into something different.
Her fast tempi are often at breakneck speeds and the notes have a hard time getting out of each other's way. We never heard a logjam, but that possibility hung in the air. Slow tempi, conversely, are very slow. But she always kept the piece moving forward, even though she often paused to luxuriate over a resolution or a turn of the phrase.
Her program was conservative and one that could have been performed more than a century ago and still wouldn't have contained any new music.
Robert Schumann’s suite of character pieces, Carnaval, in spite of its awesome difficulties, has been a concert stable since it premiered in 1840 or so. Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-fat Major dates from almost the same year. Of course, how could a Russian pianist not play some Rachmaninoff? So Kern played a few of the Études-tableaux and a selection of his Preludes, all of which barely snuck over the line to qualify as 20th century works.
The lack of a late-20th or a 21st century work on the program was lamentable. There is a cluster of composers working today, writing in every musical style imaginable. There are also quite a few living Russian composers deserving of being represented on Kern's programs. Nikolai Kapustin, whose blended musical style perfectly fits the character of our time, immediately springs to mind.
On the other hand, considering the moving tribute to the late Van Cliburn that Kern delivered before beginning, her selections would have pleased her mentor. It was a program that he might have played that very night, were he in Kern's place.
“He gave me his music,” she said, “and I gave him my heart.”
There is much of Cliburn influence in Kern's playing. The no-holds-barred Russian style of playing, which is her heritage, has been tempered. Her musical awareness has grown from attention to the note, to attention to the phase, and finally to attention to the entire piece. Further, her playing feels freed from traditional restraints and she is not afraid to take considerable liberties within that structure (perhaps some more Cliburn influence). Ironically, her rubato-laden playing (which is most welcome), harkens back to an earlier era. This freedom, even within the phrase, is most welcome the midst of today's metronomic-click-track performances.
The spirit of Cliburn, conjured by Kern with the assistance of all those present, had to be pleased with how she played on Friday. Kern showed that she was keeping Cliburn's musical gift alive and vital so that one day she can in turn pass these precious traditions on to the Olga Kerns yet to come.