With all possible feelings
Pianist Olga Kern
Since giving her first concert at the age of seven, pianist Olga Kern has enjoyed decades of critical acclaim for her powerful and passionate performances. During the next two weeks, she brings both of those signature qualities to two programs presented by the Santa Fe Symphony.
On Thursday, Oct. 13, Kern appears as the inaugural artist on the symphony’s new recital series, performing a lineup of invitingly beautiful works as well as thrillingly virtuosic showpieces. The first half features Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, known as the Waldstein sonata, and three sonatas by Scarlatti; the second half includes works by Russian composers Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Balakirev. “I really love the contrast between the Scarlatti sonatas and Beethoven’s Waldstein,” Kern said. “Waldstein is a great, monumental piece, and it’s written so ingeniously. There’s so much about nature in this piano sonata; I definitely feel a similarity to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral [written four years after the sonata, in 1808]. And there are great challenges also, technically and musically.” Waldstein comes from the middle period of Beethoven’s career (1803-1814), which is typically referred to as his “heroic” period. During this time, Beethoven moved away from the influence of predecessors such as Haydn and Mozart, became more experimental with his style, and struggled with the heartbreak and practical challenges of his ever-increasing hearing loss. Kern’s curation of the three Baroque-era sonatas by Scarlatti, which precede Waldstein on the program, presents a complement of works that are all “different in dynamics and atmosphere,” she said. “I chose [them] because, for me, they’re like the first, second, and third movements of something bigger. The last one feels like a finale of a little cycle.”
The recital’s all-Russian second half begins, Kern said, with “a great selection of preludes by my beloved Rachmaninoff, whom I absolutely love to perform.” Rachmaninoff wrote more than two dozen piano preludes, which include his opuses 23 and 32. Each prelude “is a masterpiece, a little jewel, and so incredibly gorgeous,” Kern said. “You have everything, all possible feelings: sadness, tragedy, happiness, passion, love. Everything you can think of, he put in there.”
Kern, who was born in Moscow, pairs Rachmaninoff’s preludes with two études by “another genius Russian composer,” Scriabin. “The first étude,” she said, “is slow and very beautiful, kind of like a cosmos or universe sound. The second étude is very dramatic. It has a lot of technical excitement and a lot of fast passages. It’s a very big contrast to Rachmaninoff’s preludes, so I put it in the middle [of the second half of the program]. And then, at the end, I present one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire, Balakirev’s Islamey.”
Balakirev wrote the folksong-infused Islamey in 1869, a year before a group he led, known as The Mighty Handful or The Five, disbanded. The Mighty Handful, which first met in 1856, included the composers Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, in addition to Balakirev, and sought to create a distinctly Russian classical music tradition.
“Islamey is a great piece to perform,” Kern said. “It has a lot of fire. Balakirev put a wonderful slow movement in the middle of it, and it reminds me of a conversation between lovers. You can hear when the woman is talking and when the man is talking. I’ve been playing Islamey for quite a long time, and it’s grown with me and changed with me. It’s kind of more like a symphonic piece than a solo piano piece. It’s very exciting.”
Three days after her recital, on Oct. 16, Kern joins the Santa Fe Symphony for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. In 2001, Kern performed this piece during the final round of the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which she won, tying for the gold medal with Stanislav Ioudenitch and making history as the first woman to win in more than 30 years. Despite Kern’s numerous performances of this perennially popular work, the music always remains fresh for both her and her audience.
“Every time I play this piece, it’s like the first and last time,” Kern said. “Rachmaninoff wrote so much in [the score]; every little detail means a lot. So every time I look at the score, I find something new and something important. You can play this piece all your life, and it will never be boring because there is so much to say. Each time I play the cadenza in the first movement it sounds different because you can approach it in different ways — more dramatic, more sad, more philosophical. This kind of genius composition is completely priceless for a pianist.”
Kern last appeared with the Santa Fe Symphony in September 2015 during the orchestra’s season-opening concert, led by current principal conductor Guillermo Figueroa. This year she appears with guest conductor and fellow Moscow-born musician Ignat Solzhenitsyn. “I know [Ignat] very well,” Kern said, “but I’ve never had a chance to work with him, so this is a great opportunity.” In addition to being a conductor, Solzhenitsyn is a pianist, which, Kern noted, “always helps” with the collaborative process.
Soon after concluding her Santa Fe appearances, Kern, who’s based in New York City, returns to New Mexico — which “is like my second home,” she said — to join forces with another of her frequent artistic partners, the New Mexico Philharmonic, to launch the first-ever Olga Kern International Piano Competition, for which she serves as artistic director and jury president. Kern has her own distinguished history with competitions, having won, in addition to the Van Cliburn, the Concertino Praga Competition at age eleven and the inaugural Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition at age seventeen, among others. She therefore understands firsthand the opportunities these events provide for young artists both artistically and professionally.
The competition’s selection jury has narrowed down the field of more than 100 applicants (from more than a dozen countries) to 24 contestants. Those 24 will compete in Albuquerque in November, and their ranks will be reduced to 12 semifinalists. From those semifinalists, four finalists will be chosen, and those four will perform with the New Mexico Philharmonic, led by Kern’s brother, the conductor Vladimir Kern. The winner will be awarded a cash prize, a recording contract, and performance engagements. A special prize will also be awarded during the competition by the Aspiration foundation, which Kern and her brother began in 2011.
“There’s so much variety and so much talent, so the competition will be very exciting,” Kern said. “Also, there’s great interest in this area. We have a lot of volunteers who want to help, and it’s wonderful to see how people react to this project, how they want to participate. I’m looking forward to this very much, and I think it will be a great new project that will be in the area for many years.”
Each Rachmaninoff prelude “is a masterpiece, a little jewel, and so incredibly gorgeous,” Kern said. “You have everything, all possible feelings: sadness, tragedy, happiness, passion, love. Everything you can think of, he put in there.”
Olga Kern in concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra