With all pos­si­ble feel­ings

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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

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