Van Cliburn win was just the start for Kern

Sunday, August 07, 2011
How many Van Cliburn Competition medalists, or even finalists, can you recall? Can you name any of the winners of the more than 300 other U.S. piano competitions? Gold medalists come and go. But 10 years after she was named co-winner of the 2001 Cliburn Competition, pianist Olga Kern has shown she’s here to stay. With a half-dozen recordings (of Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky) and engagements ranging from Moscow to Los Angeles (where she’ll perform at the Hollywood Bowl later this month), Kern has developed a reputation far beyond that of a mere competition winner. She’ll perform Wednesday at SummerFest with her 12-year-old son, pianist Vladislav Kern, in mostly Russian repertoire, then return to La Jolla for a March 3 program with violinist Vladimir Spivakov. “If you are ready for this bigger career after a competition — a competition as big as the Cliburn Competition, which gives you 120 concerts — then you know you will succeed and you can do this,” said the Russian-born Kern on the phone from New York, which has been her home for the past eight years. “But many people who are winning the competitions are not prepared for this big change in their lives. It’s very hard in the beginning to suddenly find yourself in a completely different level of concertizing. You are going from one place to another, playing different programs with different orchestras, different repertoire, doing solo recitals and chamber music. It’s not for everybody. But if you know this is what you always wanted to do, you do it.” Her family includes a great-great-grandmother who was a friend of Tchaikovsky, a great-grandmother who sang with Rachmaninoff, and parents who are both pianists. So Kern has known for a long time that she wanted to be a musician. Her mother started giving her piano lessons at age 3, and by age 5 she was playing in public. “I was always around music and I loved the piano,” said the 36-year-old Kern, who speaks with a pronounced Russian accent. “It has a beautiful form, a beautiful body, and it has a great, gorgeous sound. You can make so many things from it. It’s like an orchestra.” She attended the Moscow Central School with the legendary Russian teacher Evgeny Timakin, whose many students also included Ivo Pogorelich and Mikhail Pletnev. Kern was one of his last students, and he made an indelible impression on her with his insistence on a big but also beautiful sound that she views as the essence of the Russian manner of making music. “My teacher was always saying you need to have meat — meat in the sound, but in a good way,” she said. “It’s a great, full sound, and of course you must also have great technique. Nowadays, many Asian pianists are playing with great technique, but is the meat, the great sound, in their interpretation? I’m not sure.” While Kern’s sound and technique undoubtedly captured the attention of the competition judges, it may be her apparent ability to forge a relationship with an audience that has sustained her career. “You can feel the audience,” she said. “All this atmosphere, this huge energy coming from all these people. And it really helps you to perform. Because when you are in a room by yourself practicing, it is a completely different feeling. “It can only can happen in a concert, when you play and you completely fly into a different world, and then this magic moment comes. You think: ‘Wow, I just did something incredible. It sounded so beautiful. It never sounded like this before.’ ” Kern doesn’t view an interpretation as something fixed. “It’s changing all the time,” she said. “It’s changing with me living in this world, just being older and more experienced. And just looking at my son, which is giving me such a great feeling of inspiration.” In some ways, her son mirrors her own background: musical parents, lessons and performances at a very early age and studies in Moscow. While he and his mother have performed together several times in Europe, they played together for the first time in the U.S. last week at the Bear Valley Music Festival. SummerFest will be their second U.S. performance together. He’s scheduled to start in Juilliard’s pre-college division in the fall, which will further stress Kern’s schedule. But she has the music to ease even the challenging times. “Music is always helping me in the most difficult situations,” she said. “I still think that without music, we can’t survive. The traveling, it’s not the most pleasant part. Especially right now in this particular time. You travel, you are exhausted, you sleep in the hotel. But the next morning, you go to the piano and you forget about everything. “And then you play a concert in the evening and then you have this response from the public and this great energy coming from them, back and forth. It’s like a miracle happening every time, every time when I’m onstage. It’s such a great feeling. I would never do anything else because music is everything.” If you had trouble remembering the other 2001 Cliburn co-winner, it was Stanislav Ioudenitch. He’s an associate professor of piano at Park University in Kansas City. James Chute Reporter - Classical Music & Arts

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