Although she’d been winning competitions since age 11, including the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition at age 17, pianist Olga Kern really came to the public’s attention, at least in the U.S., at the 2001 Van Cliburn competition. She played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and became the first woman in 30 years to win the gold medal, which she shared with Stanislaw Ioudenitch. It was just the start of what she calls a wonderful career, which includes two Carnegie Hall appearances within two weeks, performances around the world, and international recognition for her technique.
Despite her name, Kern grew up in Russia, surrounded by a musical family that has ties to both Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. She now makes New York City her home, along with her son, when she’s not traveling to perform. San Francisco is always a popular destination for her, and she’s looking forward with enthusiasm to her upcoming performances around the bay.
Why did you choose these particular pieces for this program?
I chose these because they’re great pieces and go well together. I wanted to play the Schumann. It’s a beautiful big piece. When I spoke with the presenter, he was very happy I wanted to do this.
The Beethoven is a series of variations that goes perfectly with the Schumann. They’re short pieces, 10 variations. They’re not played very often, but such a beautiful piece of music. A great theme by Salieri, and it’s great what Beethoven did with them.
The second half is two great composers, Chopin and Liszt. Chopin is the king of the piano. It will be, especially in the Herbst Theatre; it’s such a beautiful hall. Liszt’s two Hungarian Rhapsodies (Nos. 2 and 10) are fun pieces with great energy.
Is this part of the concert tour you were doing with Vladimir Spivakov?
No, it’s totally different. We finished the tour in February, then I was already all over Europe. This is the start of the spring tour, then to Arizona, where I’ll play all of the Rachmaninov concertos. Now is just the beginning.
Now I’m by myself. It’s a totally different experience from chamber music.
I’m getting jet lag listening to you.
I just got home to New York, so I’m also jet lagged. But my home base is in New York. My son is just starting at the Juilliard Preparatory College, in piano. It’s great to come home, spend some time with my son.
How old is he?
That’s a great age.
Yes. He’s so smart and sophisticated but still has the feelings of complete pureness of a child. I hear the teenage years can be bad, but I think music is helping so much. It teaches discipline and character. I remember, with my brother and myself, we still had the music to see us through those years. I think it will be the same with him.
What was performing at the Van Cliburn International like?
The piano is the best possible instrument. It has everything. It’s an orchestra. It has a beautiful shape.
I didn’t feel like I was in a competition. I had a beautiful host family. I felt like I was part of the family. I didn’t speak much English because I had mainly learned German, and they were teaching me phrases. My host mother was a beautiful woman. She had a beautiful piano, beautiful art. I felt welcomed. I was having a great time. They made me feel like I was in my own house and place.
It felt no different than just going on stage and performing. I didn’t feel the pressure. I was by myself. I had a 1½-year-old son. It was important not to be stressed. I was always performing for my son. And I went on thinking, I need to make him feel proud.
2001 was a great year for me. Winning gave me the opportunity to meet Van Cliburn. He was a hero for me — and all Russian people. Plus, what it gave me: the career. It’s a huge responsibility, but at the same time what I wanted to have. I wouldn’t have my management, my friends [without my career]. I’m very happy.
Do you still keep in touch with your host family?
I love nature and I love to paint nature … it is so unique and different.
Every time I’m in Texas, in the Fort Worth–Dallas area, I always stay with them. She’s a second mother to me.
I understand your great-grandmother performed with Rachmaninov as her accompanist. That must be a great family story.
It’s a great story. We still have a program from then, and in Rachmaninov’s memoirs there is the date and a paragraph mentioning my great-grandmother’s name. I treasure that.
You grew up surrounded by musicians. Did you always want to play piano?
I always wanted to play. My mother plays and was a great piano teacher. She was my first teacher. My father is a pianist. I heard music every day. Even before I was born, I heard music because my mother was performing.
It’s the best possible instrument. It has everything. It’s an orchestra. It has a beautiful shape. With a piano you can do everything on it.
My parents never pushed me. I was always thankful my parents didn’t push, and always had the balance. It’s very important. I never push my son. It didn’t feel right for a boy to go into music, as the world is so difficult. I was really lucky. I know how many of my friends, very talented musicians, have nothing. But my son explained to me, “Mama, even if I will be just a regular music teacher in a little tiny village, I will be a happy man.” He was 5 at the time! And I knew it would be all right.
Kern is your mother’s last name. Why use it professionally?
I had won a lot with my father’s name, but as I performed more and more outside of Russia, it was hard. The name [Pushechnikova] is very long and very Russian, and difficult for people to pronounce. My mother’s name was easier, and it was still my family name. My father was disappointed, but I explained to him how important it was and he finally said yes. So I changed it. It’s a great, easy name, and finally I had a last name. Otherwise, everyone just called me “Olga.”
What would you do if not a musician?
I would probably paint. I love to draw and do watercolors. I would still be in art. It’s impossible not to be in art.
It’s your hobby?
Painting is a hobby, although I don’t do it as much, because I am so busy traveling. I was just so addicted to it. I love nature and I love to paint nature … it is so unique and different. There is the green field in the sun and the sun goes into clouds and it’s a totally different green, and you can mix colors. I love to paint nature, landscapes, flowers.
What music are you listening to these days?
I was just in the Czech Republic, in Prague. I was amazed at how great the Czech composers are. I’m listening to Martinů, who is more modern, and Janáček, who is more old school.