SHE’S BEAUTIFUL, SHE’S blond and, on a certain physical level, she fits a Hollywood stereotype, but Moscow-born concert pianist Olga Kern is not just a pretty face. The product of “many generations” of classical music, Kern won the prestigious Texas-based Van Cliburn International Piano competition in 2001 – the first woman to do so in more than 30 years – and she is today recognised as one of her generation’s finest performers. On Saturday she will play for the Johannesburg Music Society, as part of a three-week long South African tour. Last night, she spoke from Cape Town to My View about her history, her career and her irrepressible love for music.
“After Johannesburg, I play in Pretoria, then Knysna, then Durban,” she rattles off. “On March 1, I’m accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, before I go to California, South Carolina and St Louis.”
She explains that up to 150 engagements a year all over the world for a concert pianist of her calibre is fairly commonplace. “That is why winning the Van Cliburn at 25 was really perfect for me. I was not too young, and not too old. The management and recognition that winning such competitions brings a performer are very important, but what comes with the opportunity is a big responsibility to perform consistently and frequently. If you are not up to it, it can break you.” The winner of 11 international piano competitions (including that presented by Unisa, in 1996), she acknowledges how important fitness is for the lifestyle.
But it’s not only about keeping to a tight itinerary. Kern’s ancestry is rich with music: her great-grandmother Vera Fedorovna Pushechnikova was a mezzo soprano and a great friend of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and he would often accompany her. But that’s not all: one generation earlier, Vera’s mother and Kern’s great-great-grandmother, Palageya Safronovna Pushechnikova was a good friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the family owns many unique letters and photographs of the composer.
But in spite of these illustrious roots, New York-based Kern, who grew up in Communist-torn Russia at the time of the Perestroika remains humble as she speaks of the magic of performing. “The first time I played with an orchestra onstage I was seven years old. The energy that comes from the audience made me realise that this was my place.” The recipient of an honorary scholarship from the President of Russia in 1996, Kern studied under Professor Sergei Dorensky at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory and Professor Boris Petrushansky at the Accademia Pinistica Incontri col Maestro in Italy.
It is unthinkable, she says, for her to have pursued any career but music: “I started hearing music while I was in my mother’s belly,” she speaks of the mysterious ease with which she learned Rachmaninoff’s notoriously difficult third concerto. “My mother told me she was always playing this work when she was pregnant with me.”
She, in turn, used to play Schubert and Brahms whilst she was pregnant with her now 16-year-old son, Vladislav, who has just won the recital section of the Tureck International Bach Competition for young pianists. “Today, Schubert and Brahms are his favourite composers. That love for music stays.”
Currently in the process of launching a music competition in her own name, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Kern speaks of the thrill of finding “rising stars”. “Winning the Olga Kern award will come with lots of opportunities for engagements and recordings,” she says. She will serve as artistic director of the competition and president of its jury.
Kern, with her brother, the trumpeter, conductor and composer Vladimir, has set up the Aspiration Foundation, to assist young concert performers financially and artistically with instruments and even clothes for concert performance. “A young performer needs to wear something extraordinary onstage; many can’t afford to,” she says.
But speaking of dresses, she considers what it means to her, to be a top woman concert pianist, given that the piano is historically considered “male”.
“I was taught how to make a big, round sound on this huge grand instrument,” she says, acknowledging that it takes great physical fitness and emotional robustness to make the piano sing, and generally the world of concert pianists is still traditionally a man’s terrain, but she ponders a moment and reconsiders: “Whilst I was at the school and the conservatory, it was not about being a man or a woman that fed my love for the instrument.
“But being a woman concert pianist comes with its own challenges. My suitcase is heavier and bigger than that of any man in my job,” she speaks of her New York dress designer and how she selects her gowns depending on the music she will play. “The big gowns are very heavy. But, challenges aside, I am so lucky I do this. If you love what you do, everything is equal.”
Her current SA tour is arguably the dying wish of music impresario Schalk Visser. “He asked me to do an extended South African tour in February this year; it took a bit of haggling for us to agree on three weeks, not more. But sadly Schalk passed away suddenly in December.” Kern has dedicated her Johannesburg concert to the memory of Visser. “He was such an important person for me and for many other artists,” she said.
Digressing from her usual repertoire of traditional Russian music, for her Johannesburg concert, Kern plays Classic and Romantic pieces, including one contemporary Russian piece, by Boris Frenksteyn that was composed for her.
“I begin with several Scarlatti sonatas which I first heard in a life-changing performance when I was eight years old. The pianist was the great Vladimir Horowitz. It was in Moscow and my grandfather had one extra ticket and he asked me to come with.”
She’s played Schumann’s Kinderzenen – which features in the recital’s second half – “since my son was a baby. The work offers such a moment of peace.”
The recital is long, she says, but “so exciting.”
- Olga Kern’s concert at the Linder Auditorium in Parktown is on February 20, for the Johannesburg Music Society. Visit www.jms.org.za for further details.