Olga Kern finds the Russian heart of music in Rachmaninoff

By David Fleshler

It was the late 1990s in Boris Yeltsin’s Moscow, and the young pianist Olga Kern was enduring the most difficult period of her professional life.

After traveling to Fort Worth with high hopes for success in the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition,  she was devastated to be eliminated in the preliminary rounds. After that, she and her husband divorced and she was left in Moscow to care for their infant son.

At this point it would have been easy to acknowledge — as many competition non-winners have — that a concert career was not in the works and that the best course for a young single mother would be to pursue the steady paycheck of a teaching position, swallowing her disappointment as she watched others make recordings and win concert engagements.

But Kern, who will perform Sunday at Gusman Hall in Coral Gables, displayed the inner steel that characterizes many of the best in every field. She returned to the keyboard and the drudgery of an intense practice schedule, even as caring for her baby absorbed the largest part of her time. “I was working so hard after ’97,” she said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “That was a very, very hard time for me.

“I was by myself. I was with a little boy on my hands, and at night I would go to the conservatory, running because it’s not so safe to be outside at night in Moscow. I knew all the guards there, and they would always give me a room to practice in. I didn’t sleep at all that year. I think there’s something stubborn in me.”

Her punishing regimen paid off. She entered competition after competition, and she returned to Fort Worth in 2001 for the Van Cliburn competition, where she become the first woman to take the gold medal. She went on to give an acclaimed recital at Carnegie Hall, where The New York Times noted her surprising but effective habit of seeking eye contact with the audience as she played. Her big tone, emotional directness and almost reckless virtuosity have earned critical praise all over the world, particularly in the dashing Romantic repertoire of Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

Although she never knew the career path would be quite this difficult, it had been clear her entire life that she would be a pianist. Of the benefits of playing Mozart to unborn children there has been much debate. But what about the effects of playing Rachmaninoff?

When Kern’s mother, a pianist and professor at the Moscow Conservatory, was pregnant with her, she was working hard on Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, playing this thunderous, lyrical, extraordinarily difficult work over and over as the unborn Olga slumbered and kicked. “When I started to learn it when I was 15 years old,” Kern said, “I definitely felt that I knew the piece.”

Russian music, particularly Rachmaninoff, was always at the heart of her artistic personality, beginning as a girl in Moscow, as she heard the music of the great Russian composers, practiced it and absorbed stories of her deeply musical family’s connections to the giants of the Russian musical past. “I grew up in that musical environment all my life,” she said. “I heard piano music, symphonic music, lots of Tchaikovsky, lots of Rachmaninoff and lots of Prokofiev. Anything Russian was always playing in the house. Like everybody else I played a lot of Bach, Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. But the really big part of my life was Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.”

Her great-great grandmother, a mezzo-soprano, had planned to include some Rachmaninoff songs in a recital program, when her accompanist got sick. The famous composer happened to be in the area, Kern said. “He said, ‘Why are you looking for somebody? I’m here and I will do this.”

Kern’s family vacationed in the country near St. Petersburg, near where the composer was born and returned many times. “It’s such a wild nature, untouched, just forest, endless fields,” she said. “Always when I play Rachmaninoff, I feel how he meant every note, every melody.”

Kern, who turns 35 next month, performs about 150 concerts a year, on a schedule that takes her all over the world. She keeps homes in New York and Moscow. Her son, Vladislav, 11, is studying piano at the Moscow Central Music School. When she was pregnant, she played a lot of Schubert, who is now Vladislav’s favorite composer.

The audience at Gusman Hall will be able to hear Kern perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2, a dark, brilliant work that Kern has been living with most of her life. “I love this sonata,” she said. “For me the second movement of the sonata is the melody to die for. It’s hard for me to play it right. It took a long time. As I was playing that sonata I was growing up and going through life and all the changes in life.”

In addition to the Rachmaninoff, she will perform the Haydn Piano Sonata in C Major H. XVI: 50, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and Chopin’s Sonata No. 2. She has a recording soon to be released of the Chopin sonatas.

Although Rachmaninoff’s popularity with the public amounts to a stigma in some musical circles, Kern sees the immediacy of his appeal as an artistic strength. “He’s so understandable by everybody,” she said. “I know they say the same thing about Mozart. It’s so easy to understand, I think this is something great about the composer.”

Olga Kern performs 4 p.m. Sunday at Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables as part of the Sunday Afternoons of Music series. Call 305-358-5885, 954-523-3309 or 561-966-3309, or go to www.sundaymusicals.org.

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2 Responses to “Olga Kern finds the Russian heart of music in Rachmaninoff”

  1. Posted Dec 01, 2016 at 5:00 pm by john

    Rachmaninoff + Mme Kern = Coup de foudre!

  2. Posted Jul 03, 2017 at 6:35 pm by Jack Thomas

    I personally prefer Olga’s performance of Rach 3 at the 2001 Cliburn Competition over all the others. Her tempos are just right and her dynamics and spontaneity give this incredibly difficult but beautiful piece a life of which I’ve not heard from another pianist. The audience response is also a thrill to observe. I’ve watched and listened to this You Tube over and over, and each time I’m literally carried away by the performance. Olga rocks!

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Thu Mar 18, 2010
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