Olga Kern proved a couple of things on Thursday. One is that the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas is an excellent venue for a solo piano recital. To paraphrase Oliver, "can we have some more, please?"
The other is that she remains one of the most engaging artists performing today. The formal setting and her elegant gowns aside, the audience felt as if we were in her living room as she played some of her favorite music for us. She didn't convey this with a lot of chatty repartee, as some talkative artists are wont to do, but in her unaffected demeanor, eschewing of showbiz, and her obvious enjoyment of what she was playing.
There were some minuses. One was the lack of a program. Instead we got an oversized postcard with the bare minimal listing of what was being played. This was especially unfriendly to Schumann's Carnaval, which is a multi-movement work with each segment having its own individual concept or portrait of a real person in the composer's life. Even those of us who were basically familiar with the work could have used a detailed roadmap to follow during Kern's highly characteristic performance.
Also, for some reason, ushers brought in tardy ticket holders during the first piece. One pair was even seated late in a front row; the opening work was barely started. This is inexcusable and disturbing to everyone – not just those that had to stand by and let them pass. Latecomers just have to wait until the first piece is finished.
The other missing element was some music of more recent vintage.
Everything on the program dated from the mid 19th century, at its most recent. We are now in the 21st century, so even early 20th century music is celebrating its centenary. Inserting a piece by a living composer is often treated as a single Brussels sprout on a pouting child's dinner plate, but at least it is there and hopefully consumed. Living composers need the sunshine of performances if they are to flower and bloom and only artists that are performing can supply that.
However, it is hard to quibble about the music that was presented.
Beethoven's rarely heard Variations on a Theme by Salieri was enchanting. She perfectly caught Beethoven's style and especially his wit, avoiding the molto-serioso performances this composer has suffered lately around town. Schumann's multi-faceted Carnaval received a marvelous performance, with all of the different sections delineated subtly so it sounded like they are the same piece. Too often, over-emphasized differences in the work cause the performance to come off as a collection of unrelated pieces. Kern played it as if we were paging through a photo book that the composer offered to his after dinner guests.
Five of Chopin's Etudes (Op. 10, Nos. 1 and 12; Op. 25, Nos. 1,2 and 10) were played with the facile virtuosity for which Kern is so well known, but they never sounded like show-off virtuoso pieces or dry exercises. Liszt's two Hungarian Rhapsodies (Nos. 10 and 2) were played with characteristic gypsyesque rubato (give and take in tempo) and Kern rightly played them as if she were making them up on the spot.
She did talk to the audience at the end of the program to tell us that she was including an extensive cadenza by Rachmaninoff into the very well known Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and it was a good thing she did. This particular piece is so well known that almost everyone in the audience was familiar with it, either in its piano or orchestral guise. Hearing new music appear suddenly near the end, you might have thought that she was lost. However, with her helpful word of explanation, we were all waiting for Rachmaninoff's additions. It was fun to hear, and supposedly Liszt authorized such insertions, but as to whether it enhanced the piece or not is still open to question.
In general, Kern is a master technician. Even the most difficult passages were easily tossed off, sometimes that the speediest limits of possible tempo. She rarely moved her upper body, maintaining a dignified posture at the keyboard. Her textbook hand position would have set anyone's elementary piano teacher's heart leaping.
However, the overriding impression was one of musical mastery. Inner voices were allowed to sing out, even counter melodies that are usually buried in the texture, boldly ventured forth out of hiding. But mostly, it is the naturalness of her playing that drew the audience into the musical world she created. In a recent interview with me, she explained her concert concept.
"Music is a different world. That is what is so exciting about a performance," she said. "The audience and I go to this different world and we inhabit it together for a moment."
While any artist has fans and detractors, and they will argue the pluses and minuses with their last breath, no one can deny that we were in that musical world created by Olga Kern on Thursday evening. We were there for a moment, and are richer for the experience.