La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Olga Kern : Celebrating The Music

Russian pianist Olga Kern (photo: Dario Acosta)

Olga Kern : Celebrating The Music
The Dynamic Russian Pianist Talks about her Art

by Joseph K. So

Now into the second decade of an international career, Russian pianist Olga Kern continues to receive rapturous accolades from audience and critics alike. Praised for her virtuoso technique, innate musicality, singing tone, communicative power, not to mention a magnetic stage presence, one can say Kern has that undefinable something best described as star power. Since her 2001 win at the Van Cliburn Competition, incidentally the first woman in over thirty years to be bestowed that honour, Kern's career took off on a meteoric trajectory that has taken her to many important concert venues around the world. An exclusive Yamaha artist, Kern's last appearance in Toronto was in November 2010 when she came for the unveiling of the hot new Yamaha CFX concert grand. At her Koerner Hall concert, the incandescent Russian figuratively burned up the stage with a program of Haydn, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Balakirev. This time around, Kern is teaming up with fellow countryman violinist Vladimir Spivakov in an evening of eclectic music-making, in a program of Brahms, Stravinsky, Arvo Part and Cesar Franck. An interesting twist is that Kern will be playing on the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand, courtesy of Robert Lowrey Piano Experts. (Since Yamaha owns Bosendorfer, it's all in the family, so to speak!) Kern will be using this rare instrument at the Koerner Hall concert as well as in the masterclass a day before, to take place at Robert Lowrey's European Gallery. Participating in the masterclass are two youngsters: the 11-year old Coco Ma and 15-year old Amadeusz Kazubowski Houston, both with impressive credentials already under their belts; plus the thirty-something Ricker Choi, Second Prize winner at the Berlin International Amateur Piano Competition. More details at

Earlier this week, I managed to reach Olga Kern for a phone interview. No, it wasn't easy finding a suitable time as she was in the thick of final rehearsals in New York for her upcoming North American tour with Vladimir Spivakov. (In fact, the day after our conversation, the tour started in Princeton, New Jersey, followed by Boston, Carnegie Hall, Chicago before coming to Toronto on Feb. 23) My appointment with her had to be changed four times to accommodate her hectic schedule, but thanks to the good work of seasoned publicists Liz Parker and Linda Litwack, we eventually connected in the evening. Despite being at the end of an exhausting day, Kern exuded energy in our forty-minute conversation, gamely fielding all my questions with candid and thoughtful answers:

LSM: When you were a young student studying the piano, who was your idol? Your role model?

OK: Oh I had so many! I must say the most memorable, the most inspirational concert that I attended as a child was when (Vladimir) Horowitz came back to Moscow to play at the Conservatory. It was impossible to get tickets, but somehow my grandfather got a ticket for me. I was very little at that time, but I remember how incredible it was, the energy coming from that incredible musician. And all those encores - he played like 20 was unforgettable! Another memorable moment was when (Sviatoslav) Richter came to my school. He was already old - he used the score and didn't want big lights on stage, so it was by candle light. It was such an intimate atmosphere. My mother, when she heard that Richter was coming to my school, she said "we are not going back home - you'll just wait until the performance in the evening." Actually not many people knew that he was coming, so the little concert hall was half empty. I was in the first row. He played Brahms' Variations on a theme by Paganini, and I'll never forget that sound. I said to myself "one day I'll learn this piece and play it!" He was my inspiration. I learned it and played it at the Van Cliburn competition and I won. My third inspiration was of course Van Cliburn. My parents were pianists and they had recordings at home with Cliburn at the Tchaikovsky Competition. I grew up on that recording of Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninoff 3. It was incredible, to hear an American musician with such feeling for Russian music. Those were the most memorable, but as I said, I had many others, like Glenn Gould, Claudio Arrau, and later on Martha Argerich.

LSM: You've been extremely successful in competitions. Tell us what's your secret...

OK: Ah! I must say that I never liked competitions. I don't think anybody likes competitions. But for young pianists, it's very important to do competitions because people will hear you and it's an opportunity to get management, recordings. In my case, this was what I was looking for. I was looking for something to get my career to a different step. (In a competition), I felt I was just performing a regular concert, I wanted to have that joy, that freedom, not thinking there are judges there to judge you. You have to be happy, to celebrate the music, to see it as another opportunity to give a concert to an audience - that was the most important feeling I had.

LSM: Do you encourage young people to enter competitions?

OK: As I said, for young people, competitions mean they have more opportunities to be heard, to get management, to succeed in life. Yes, I think competition is an important step in life right now. If you really want to be a soloist and a concert musician, to concertize, you need to enter competitions.

LSM: Do you serve as a judge in competitions?

OK: I did it a couple of times. I did it in Paris once, and in Russia I did a Van Cliburn Amateur Competition. I must say judging is so stressful for me! I feel so much for the people coming onstage to perform. I actually would prefer to be on the other side, to perform myself! It's such a big responsibility...

LSM: Yes, but when you are a judge, what qualities are you looking for in a competitor? What makes that pianist stand out among the rest?

OK: The most important thing is whether the person really understands and feels the music, to be inside the music. If the girl or boy really grabs your attention, you can't stop listening...

LSM: Besides giving masterclasses, do you also teach?

OK: You know, it's the biggest responsibility....the personal teacher is so important in our lives. To have this responsibility you need a 100% free time to do this. I know I love to teach, and I love masterclasses... it's the biggest pleasure when I have a chance. I like to share what I know with the young musicians. But I can't possibly give more free time because I'm concertizing so much... I feel I am not 100% toward this or that student. To teach, you need to dedicate your life to this. Either you are a teacher or you are a performer. You can share what you love at the masterclass when you can inspire young people. I remember when I was a young student in Accademia Pianistica in Imola Italy, I remember when great teachers like Leon Fleisher came, incredible musicians who were giving masterclasses. They were so inspiring to me as a student. It gave me such a great energy to do something better, give opportunity to my brain and my heart to do something differently. That was very important in my life. I am sure if I can help others in this way in the masterclasses, even for a short time, the talented musicians will listen to me and do something great. I have a couple of pianists where I feel I am a mentor in a way. I know these children from a young age. One girl just went to London and she's in the Royal Academy now. Another one is in Colorado. I remember hearing the talent in these kids, and I encouraged them to practice, to do something more. I wanted them to continue in music and I am glad they are doing so well. If I had more time, I'd dedicate my life to teaching, but unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - I love what I do. I love to be on stage performing. Maybe in my other life!

LSM: How many performances do you give a year?

OK: The count is about 130 a year. It's like that every year. I can't start doing less, people love what I do and keep inviting me back! I can't say no... I just keep going!

LSM: Since you play concerts all over the world - and pianists are not like singers who take their instruments with them - you're dependent on the instruments the concert organizers provide for you. How do you make adjustments to different pianos and concert halls?

OK: Sometimes it's not easy because the piano may not be in great condition. We need to have rehearsals before the concert, at least two hours to feel the acoustics and to feel the piano. You know, even not the greatest piano, I can turn it my way, to get the piano to like me! I feel I always have a conversation with the piano. It's not just an instrument - it has a soul. Just like a Stradivarius violin or cello, this instrument has a soul. Every piano, even when it's not in great condition because of the weather, or maybe not a great piano technician or something else... Anyway, you can always talk to a piano. You just have to take more time, maybe longer in the rehearsal, but it'll always respond to you. This is how I'm doing it!

LSM: How many pianos do you own?
OK: I have one piano in Moscow in my parent's apartment. They had two baby grands but they sold one and now we have one piano. And I have two Clavinova electronic pianos...they are great for practicing at night if I have to practice and not bother anybody. And then I have a piano in New York, both are Yamaha pianos and I love them!

LSM: You are known as a soloist, but you've also accompanied singers, like Renee Fleming. Can you give us your thoughts on accompaniment?

OK: I accompanied Renee Fleming and Kathleen Battle. I must say that when you work with the voice, it really give you the opportunity to learn so much. Piano in general is a percussion instrument, and you need to make it sing. To do this you need to know how singers use their voice. When you have opportunity to work with such a great singer like Renee Fleming for example, afterwards I understood how much I can change the sound on the piano, to sing more with the piano. I also work with chamber musicians, like now with Vladimir Spivakov. It's so much more intimate than a piano solo. You have a person next to you, and you are in a conversation all the time between violin and piano, back and forth. It's such a joy to have rehearsals and to listen to the sound of the violin or cello... it gives you the opportunity to learn something new... It's great.

LSM: What pieces of music are you working on right now?

OK: I have an interesting project - I want to do both Brahms No. 1 and 2. I hope I'll do the first concert in South Africa, with my brother. We always try to do something interesting, for example, we did all the Rachmaninoff concerti together for the first time in Cape Town where he is first guest conductor. Then I'm working on Prokofiev No. 1, and some Beethoven Sonatas because I want to give a recital of Beethoven "the teacher" and Liszt "the pupil." I'm so busy, I just hope I'll find the time. With my concert schedule, it's so hard to find the time, but I am hoping in the summer -even though I have summer festivals - it's always a good opportunity for me to learn something new.

LSM: Your repertoire is mostly the great masters of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Do you play contemporary pieces at all?

OK: I love contemporary music! I like the idea in competitions that you always have an obligatory piece by living composers. It's a great opportunity to see how young musicians understand contemporary music. I am trying to find the right piece by a composer living today. It's hard - it's either I don't like the piece, or it's something I like to play but would like to change something. It's good to meet the composer first beforehand. Actually I met some beautiful composers the last couple of years. Some of them wanted to dedicate some pieces to me - I'll see how it'll go. I really want to show my public that I love contemporary music. First of all, my father is a great composer. He's not composing anymore, but he was composing chamber music, piano sonatas concertos, pieces for the voice. He gave me the love and understanding of contemporary music. When I was in the conservatory, I studied the music of Olivier Messiaen and I wrote a kind of dissertation on him. His 12-tone system is so interesting to me. When you get inside it, you can understand that it's very mathematical. I learned some of his compositions - his works are so hard that nobody plays; they are so incredibly rhythmical. I really hope very soon I will be able to play it in a recital program. Not all contemporary, but at least one half of the program.

LSM: What advice would you give to a young person who is studying to be a concert pianist?

OK: You know, I have a son who is twelve. He started playing the piano when he was three. He started at the central music school in Moscow and now he is in his first year at Juilliard. I always give him the most important advice - it's to "practice right." A lot of students are not practicing correctly. They can practice six or seven hours without any success...

LSM: When you say "practicing right" - are you talking about technique?

OK: Mostly you need to understand what you do. When you are practicing, you need to concentrate on the music, nothing else matters. You can't think about - oh, I didn't do my homework, I didn't do this or do that... No! Rachmaninoff said you can make anything possible just in two hours if you practice correctly. You need to know what you are doing when you are working on a piece. When you start, you need to warm up our muscles. I would recommend everybody to start with a bit of scales, it doesn't need to be hours of scales, but at least a little bit, and of course, Bach. Bach is so important! When you play Bach, you concentrate, you make your brain work, (to be) in control of everything. After Bach, it's so easy to concentrate on your piece. You'll be so disciplined and in hear everything. This is what I always say to my son, and thank God he loves Bach! He plays it everyday... Preludes and Fugues. It's so important.

LSM: Do you program Bach in your recitals?

OK: No, I usually keep it to myself in my practice. Maybe when I am older, I'll find the courage to actually perform Bach. Bach is so intimate to me, it is so personal. you really need to have the right public and the right place for Bach. It is not easy. You need to have a special occasion. You need to be ready for it. I must say I keep Bach to myself!

LSM: Well, maybe one day we'll get to hear your Bach! Maybe for now, a recording?

OK: Actually a recording can be an interesting idea because like what Glenn Gould did, it was so personal and so incredible...

LSM: I want to thank you for your time. I know you're very busy...

OK: My biggest pleasure! Thank you for calling me.



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