Pianist Olga Kern to play with Santa Rosa Symphony

Russian pianist Olga Kern leads a busy life, bouncing around the world from her home base in New York.

This month alone, she played a concert with the Boston Symphony, a recital in Seattle, then returned back to New York to spend time with her 15-year-old son, Vladislav. After appearing this weekend at Weill Hall, she will return to New York, then head off to Europe.

The pianist will perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 this weekend with the Santa Rosa Symphony when she returns to the Green Music Center for the “Blaze of Russian Glory” program. Leos Janacek’s Overture to the opera “Kat’a Kabanova” and the 1945 version of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite” complete the all-Russian program.

When she last appeared with the Santa Rosa Symphony in May 2013, Kern tackled a more familiar piece by Rachmaninoff, his beloved Piano Concerto No. 2, arguably the most popular concerto of all time. After she was invited back, she floated the idea of a two-for-one.

“It’s always very exciting to be able to perform more than one concerto in one night,” she said. “It’s interesting for the public but also for a performer.”

By pairing two early concertos, she will be able to reveal the youthful side of both composers, who offer an interesting contrast of musical styles.

“Rachmaninoff’s first is such a masterpiece,” she said. “The melodies are so gorgeous, and the second movement is a piece of art. It’s one of the best melodies in all of Rachmaninoff’s music.”

For Kern, the challenge of the Rachmaninoff will be communicating the composer’s spirit.

“It’s important to capture the beauty and love and happiness and hope in his music,” she said.

With Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1, a shorter piece, she will be trying to capture the sardonic side of the 20th-century composer, known for his angular melodies, rhythmic drive and satirical inclination.

“In Prokofiev, it’s a more sarcastic kind of laughter, especially in this concerto,” she said. “This is a very young person who is so excited about life... It’s full of great energy and makes you feel good.”

To keep up her own youthful energy, Kern said she tries to get out and walk as much as possible before a concert.

“I spend my free time walking around and trying to see something interesting, such as a museum,” she said. “It’s always very inspiring to see new cultures.”

Born in Moscow to two classical pianists, Kern gave her first concert at age 7 and won her first international competition at age 11. Her career really took off at age 17 after she won the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition.

“I was performing everywhere after that, and I was very well known in Russia,” she said. “It was a really great time for me.”

Kern shot to international fame when she became the first woman in more than 30 years to win the gold medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001.

The pianist was also featured in an award-winning 2002 TV documentary, “Playing on the Edge,” made about the competition.

“It’s really powerful and it shows everything... the different emotions and feelings and all the atmosphere at that time,” she said.

When she is home, Kern spends as much time as possible with her son, Vladislav, a pianist who is studying in Juilliard’s pre-college program. She is looking forward to performing Mozart’s Double Piano with him next season, as well as getting more involved with the Aspiration Foundation she founded in 2012 with her composer/conductor brother, Vladimir Kern.

“We already gave a lot of scholarships to talented musical kids, and we bought some instruments,” she said. “We are also giving special prizes to competitions.”

In 2016, she will serve as the chairman of the jury for the 7th Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, open to both kids and adults. Her foundation will give a special prize.

In the fall of 2016, she will launch the Olga Kern Piano Competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico, aimed at young pianists on their way up.

“The competition involves the New Mexico Philharmonic in the final round, so this is really exciting,” she said. “They don’t have anything like this in that area, and it’s really beautiful there.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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