For Olga Kern, playing Rachmaninoff always stirs memories of Van Cliburn

By Eric C. Simpson

Olga Kern will perform Rachmaninoff with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra this week in West Palm Beach and Miami.

Olga Kern will perform Rachmaninoff with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra this week in West Palm Beach and Miami.

Olga Kern is living proof that being a musical “specialist” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In her performances and recordings she has largely focused on Romantic repertoire, drawing praise for her interpretations of virtuosic standards by Tchaikovsky, Schumann, and Liszt. When she visits South Florida this week with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, she will perform a composer whose work is especially dear to her heart: Rachmaninoff.

“In all his concerti, you can feel and you can hear Rachmaninoff’s language, Rachmaninoff’s music, Rachmaninoff’s feelings,” Kern said recently from Prague via Skype. “There is so much love and so much beauty in his concerti, such beautiful melodic lines.”

Rachmaninoff has been a staple of her repertoire ever since she burst onto the international scene. At age seventeen, she won the first ever Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition, and in 2001 she took the gold medal in the Van Cliburn competition, playing the famous—and famously difficult—Third Piano Concerto of Rachamaninoff.

Van Cliburn, who died last year, was, of course, himself a celebrated interpreter of Rachmaninoff’s concerti, and he had a significant influence on Kern’s career beyond lending his name to the competition.

“What Cliburn did for Russian music was just priceless, because he showed the Russian public, and the entire world, what Russian music can sound like in different ways. His Tchaikovsky, his Rachmaninoff Third—he interpreted them in a totally different, beautiful way,” Kern said. He started to play them differently, and people understood them differently.”

“I always wanted to meet him because for all of Russia he was such a special person, such a great legend. And this is why I went to the Van Cliburn competition, and I was lucky to win and become his very good friend. He usually never taught, never gave lessons, but I played a lot of Rachmaninoff for him. We’d have a great talk in the evenings, and we could just go for hours and hours and hours, and I will never forget that because it was so incredibly important for me.

“Everything that he was saying to me was just right,” Kern said. “He always talked about Rachmaninoff in a very special way, saying that he always felt Rachmaninoff behind his shoulder when he was playing his music. And I feel Rachmaninoff next to me.”

At thirty-eight, Kern hopes to have may years on the concert stage ahead of her. Winning a major competition like the Van Cliburn—which she described as “the Olympic Games for pianists”—doesn’t necessarily guarantee a major performing career, but hers has grown exponentially since her big win in 2001. Looking through the laureates of even the biggest international competitions, one finds only a handful of Leon Fleishers, Vladimir Ashkenazys, and Emmanuel Axes.

For Kern, the key has simply been her unrelenting passion for her work. “I just can’t live without music, and I’ve always known that. I remember my first concert, I went onstage and there was a lot of stage fright. I was seven years old and my first thought was, ‘This is the place, this is my place.’ I was so comfortable with all that energy from the public, I told myself then that this is what I want to do,” she said. “You just can’t stop. You just do it until the end of your life.”

When she comes to West Palm Beach and Miami, Kern will perform the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a piece that she feels stands out among Rachmaninoff’s work, even next to warhorses like the Second and Third Concertos.

“It’s not a long piece, but everything in it, from the first note to the last chord, is just completely perfect,” she said. “It’s really great to hear the transformation of Rachmaninoff’s language from his Concerto No. 1, Opus One, to his last composition for piano and orchestra, which was Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.

Accompanying her will be Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with whom she has worked many times before. “I think [Slatkin] is really one of the great conductors of our time, and every time it’s special to work with him. It doesn’t matter what I play—it can be Russian, German, American, Czech, it doesn’t matter,” Kern said. “I’m just always looking forward to another performance with him.”

She also has high praise for Detroit’s musicians, who have come a long way in recovering from a strike that canceled a large part of their 2010–11 season. “With [Slatkin], they sound so refined, so beautiful. After what they went through, they still play so well, so exceptionally, with a very warm atmosphere and top-class musicians. It’s just a great orchestra.”

Kern is currently working on recordings of the Rachmaninoff piano concerti on the Harmonia Mundi label, and plans to record a CD of solo piano works by Schumann. Last week she was in Prague judging a Mozart competition for pianists ages eleven and under. The competition is in connection with “Aspiration,” a foundation devoted to helping gifted child musicians, which she co-founded in 2012 with her brother, the conductor Vladimir Kern. “There are so many things I’m looking forward to,” she said. “I hope to have enough time for everything.”

Olga Kern will perform Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Tuesday February 25 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and Friday, February 28 at the Arsht Center in Miami. She will also perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at Kravis at a matinee Wednesday February 26.;

Eric C. Simpson is the Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion.

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