Intimate Rhapsody: Olga Kern Builds Trust with the Detroit Symphony
Pianist Olga Kern is a spiritual descendant of composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninov. Her great-grandmother, a mezzo-soprano, had to replace her ailing pianist on one of her concert tours of Russia. Rachmaninov, also on tour and in the same city, heard about a singer performing his songs who needed a pianist that evening, and graciously volunteered his services. “We have a program from that concert,” Kern proudly boasts on a recent phone interview from New York. “It’s very special for our family that Rachmaninov touched us with his genius.” Coming from a highly musical family, Kern began her music studies at the age of five at the Central Music School of Moscow. However, her personal bond with Rachmaninov goes back even further. “When I was 15 I started practicing Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto,” says Kern. “I felt like I already knew the piece, so I told my mother, and she said: ‘I know why: when I was pregnant with you, I was playing Rachmaninov’s Third.’” When Rachmaninov died in 1943, so did Russian romanticism. Sometimes criticized for his shmaltzy compositional voice, his music nonetheless remains popular among performers and audiences alike. He was an eminence at the piano, and the bulk of his compositions are for that instrument. “Rachmaninov is the greatest example for all pianists,” says Kern. “He was an amazing pianist himself and everything he wrote for the piano is a jewel.” Kern will try and dazzle Miamians with one of those jewels this Friday, performing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Referred to as Paganini Rhapsody for short, the piece pays tribute to 19-century virtuosic violinist Niccolò Paganini, who was so skilled that it was believed he had made a pact with the devil. Paganini composed 24 caprices for solo violin, and the theme Rachmaninov uses comes from the 24th. Paganini’s tune turned out to be very popular, and had already been borrowed by many composers before Rachmaninov, including Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt. Rachmaninov built his Rhapsody with 24 variations on Paganini’s theme, and made it devilishly difficult for both pianist and orchestra. “It’s not only difficult physically but emotionally,” Kern explains. “It feels like the life of a person, the beginning like birth, and death at the end. But then, it asks a question: ‘What will be next?’” Rhapsody sounds like a firework show exploding between piano and orchestra, but it also has introspective and passionate moments, a perfect piece to show off Kern’s pyrotechnic fingers as well as her luscious sound. “There’s so many different stories in the different variations,” Kern observes. “The part for the orchestra is very important. Some variations are so intimate, it’s like you’re making chamber music with the orchestra.” Kern has performed the Rhapsody many times in venues around the world, but has reached a special level of comfort playing the piece under Slatkin’s baton. After numerous performances together, an enduring musical trust has flourished. Kern fondly recalls Slatkin telling her, “Now I can really conduct this piece by heart because I have you as the soloist.” Olga Kern performs Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin on Friday, Feb. 28 at 8:00 p.m. in the Knight Concert Hall at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blv.d, Miami. Also on the program are Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches and Brahms’ Symphony No.4. Tickets range from $75 to $130; www.arshtcenter.org.