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“Sheer talent does not come more transparently.” —Gramophone

Exclusive New York engagement
Olga Kern, piano

SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9
ALKAN: Étude No. 3 in G major, from Twelve Études in the Major Keys, Op. 35
CHOPIN: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35
RACHMANINOFF: Selections from Etudes-tableaux Opp. 33 & 39
RACHMANINOFF: Selections from Preludes Opp. 3, 23 & 32

This program has been changed from what was previously announced. It is being given in memory of Van Cliburn.
The concert is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Documentary on Olga Kern at 2001 Van Cliburn Competition

Radio Interview: Conversation and performances with pianist Olga Kern and violinist Vladimir Spivakov on WBGH-FM Boston’s “Drive Time Live” with host Brian McCreath, prior to their joint recital on Feb 17, 2012.

Performance of Barber’s Sonata for Piano Op. 26, IV. Fuga; recording of live performance during 2001 Van Cliburn Competition (audio with video photo gallery)

Artist Highlight: Olga Kern plays Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat major, "Heroic"

On the Blog

(Click the names below to expand info)


Olga Kern: Pleased Champion, Proud Mother”—Interview with Olga Kern by Marianne Lipanovich for San Francisco Classical Voice prior to her solo recital at the Herbst Theatre on Apr 15, 2012. Here is an excerpt:

What was performing at the Van Cliburn International like?

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.

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Olga Kern finds the Russian heart of music in Rachmaninoff”—Profile of Olga Kern by David Fleshler prior to her solo recital in Coral Gables on Mar 21, 2010. Here is an excerpt:

“I grew up in that musical environment all my life,” she said. “I heard piano music, symphonic music, lots of Tchaikovsky, lots of Rachmaninoff and lots of Prokofiev. Anything Russian was always playing in the house. Like everybody else I played a lot of Bach, Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. But the really big part of my life was Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.”

Her great-great grandmother, a mezzo-soprano, had planned to include some Rachmaninoff songs in a recital program, when her accompanist got sick. The famous composer happened to be in the area, Kern said. “He said, ‘Why are you looking for somebody? I’m here and I will do this.”

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Kern looks beyond ‘Olgamania’”—Profile of Olga Kern by Olin Chism for Dallas-Ft. Worth lifestyle website, on tenth anniversary of her Van Cliburn Competition win. Here is an excerpt:

Kern isn't exclusively a soloist or a pianist-with-orchestra musician. She sometimes accompanies singers, a function that dates back to her conservatory days: "In the Moscow Conservatory, there are obligatory accompaniment classes with singers. Everybody—all pianists—have this special class when studying.

"I love the voice; it gives pianists a special understanding of how music can sing, of how phrases can become long lines instead of short phrases. I try to do the same thing on the piano. Because the piano is a percussion instrument, it's very hard to make it sing, but it's important to do so."

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Explore the Music

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A Statement from the Artist

By Olga Kern

I would like to dedicate my recital to the memory of my mentor and friend Van Cliburn, as it is now approaching the one-year anniversary of his passing (February 27). The program which I chose for this recital has some of Van’s most favorite compositions. He would be so happy to hear it!

I will never forget how he performed Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 and Rachmaninoff in his historic concert a couple of years ago at the Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatory. I was so inspired by his performance! At the end of the concert, I went on stage to give him a beautiful bouquet of 70 dark red roses, which I bought especially for him, as I knew how much he loved the roses and this color of the flowers. He couldn’t see me, because the bouquet was so big that it covered me completely. When I finally tried to turn the flowers a bit on the side, Van saw my face and he became so happy! He asked me to stay with him on stage, next to the piano, in front of the full concert hall in public, and he played for me, especially for me, just for me, one of his encores—it was the Rachmaninoff Prelude in G-sharp minor. That was such a special moment in my life, and I will never forget this!

Van Cliburn was always a great inspiration for me and he will always be a great inspiration! He was the greatest musician and greatest person! He was genius!!! Every word he said and every note he played was dedicated to the most incredible magic in this world—MUSIC! I will always follow his advice and his way in the life of heavenly beautiful music!

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SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9


Born in Zwickau, Germany, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, July 28, 1856
Carnaval, Op. 9
Composed in 1834–1835; 27 minutes

The 1830s were a busy decade for the young Robert Schumann. He had moved to Leipzig in 1830 to study with the famed piano tutor Friedrich Wieck, and during the next ten years (before he married Wieck’s daughter, Clara), he composed almost all the important piano works he would ever write. In fact, Schumann’s first 23 published compositions, all from this period, are for solo piano. And he later indicated that many of these works were at least somewhat autobiographical.

Before Schumann formed a serious attachment with Clara Wieck in 1835, he was briefly engaged to Ernestine von Fricken, also one of Friedrich Wieck’s piano students. It was an ephemeral romance, but it was immortalized in one of Schumann’s first piano cycles, Carnaval, Op. 9, completed in 1835. The cycle is subtitled “Little Scenes on Four Notes,” referring in part to Ernestine’s birthplace, the German town of Asch. Using German letter-names for musical notes, this name translates into the pitches A, E-flat, C and B. The fact that each of these letters could also be found in Schumann’s name was not lost on the composer, who exploited this coincidence and the musical motifs they generated throughout the cycle.

Many of the short movements in Carnaval are musical portrayals of both real and fictional figures, including some from Schumann’s own fecund imagination. Characters from the commedia dell’arte—ever-popular at Carnival celebrations—are interspersed with portraits and commentaries on musicians (Chopin, Paganini), Schumann’s own love interests (Ernestine is “Estrella,” Clara is “Chiarina”) and even twin aspects of his own personality: the impetuous “Florestan” and the wistful “Eusebius.” Scenes of frivolous romance (Coquette, Réplique) are played out against the backdrop of celebratory dances (Valse noble, Valse allemande) that are a fundamental entertainment of Carnival festivities.

The concluding scene—Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins—is the longest and most symbolic movement of the cycle. The “Davidsbündler,” or “League of David,” was an imaginary society formed by Schumann to fight against the perceived philistinism of the musical conservatives of his day. In this finale, the progressive aims of the League are represented by a theme from Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, while the stodgy conservatives limp along to the obsolete strains of the “Grossvatertanz,” a 17th-century German dance.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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ALKAN: Étude No. 3 in G major, from Twelve Études in All the Major Keys, Op. 35


Born in Paris, November 30, 1813; died in Paris, March 29, 1888
Étude No. 3 in G major, from Twelve Études in All the Major Keys, Op. 35
Composed in 1847; 4 minutes

Charles-Valentin Alkan was in some respects a “homegrown” French/Jewish counterpart to the foreign-born keyboard virtuosi of Chopin and Liszt in mid-19th century Paris. A graduate of the Paris Conservatoire (where he had studied since the age of 5), Alkan moved in the same artistic and musical circles as his more famous colleagues, with whom he was also close friends. Like Chopin, Alkan composed almost exclusively for piano, and like Liszt, his brilliant keyboard style tested the limits of the instrument’s mechanism and technique.

Alkan’s collection of 12 Études in All the Major Keys, Op. 35, was published in 1847 at the height of his performing career. The third étude, in G-major, focuses on a shimmering tremolo in the right hand and a simple accompaniment in the left. A boisterous middle section inverts the textures as it moves dramatically to G minor. Rapidly repeated chords between the hands then lead into an altered reprise of the opening (still in minor) before a gentle coda rounds out the piece.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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CHOPIN: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35


Born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland, March 1, 1810; died in Paris, October 17, 1849
Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35
Composed in 1937; 23 minutes

Robert Schumann once said of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B-flat minor: “He calls it a ‘sonata.’ One might see this as capricious if not downright presumptuous, for he has simply tied together four of his most unruly children—perhaps to smuggle them under his name into places they otherwise could never have reached.”

There is indeed a marked difference of character among the four movements, from the dramatic and agitated opening to the demonic scherzo, the famous “funeral march” and the “wind-over-the-grave” whisperings (to paraphrase Anton Rubinstein) of the virtuosic finale. But how is it a sonata, instead of merely a collection of character pieces? While some scholars have theorized about a carefully fashioned and unified structure, the experience of actually listening to the work seems to accentuate the miscellany of the movements. Each movement also manifests stark internal contrasts, compounding the pronounced dissimilarity between them.

The first movement opens with dissonant leaps, crashing chords, abrupt changes in dynamics and irregular accents. The palpable dynamism is dispelled almost immediately by a gentle, chorale-like second theme. After the development section, the chorale is brought back more clearly in the recapitulation, while the first theme lurks menacingly as an accompaniment figure.

The energy from the first movement’s opening theme is diverted into the brilliant Scherzo that follows. This movement also includes a contrasting lyrical interlude in the Trio section, written in the style of some of the composer’s waltzes and preludes. The asymmetrical phrase lengths in this Trio (3+5 measures, instead of the more usual 4+4) settle uneasily on the ear.

The third movement—arguably the most famous funeral march in Western music—was composed in 1837, two years earlier than the rest of the sonata. As the march develops it becomes less macabre and more heroic, leading into yet another contrasting lyrical section. This nocturne-like interlude is one of the most transparent and delicate passages Chopin ever penned. Linked to the march by tempo and meter, it is neither a lament nor a song of condolence as it expresses genuine and unforced tranquility. An orchestral arrangement of this movement was performed at Chopin’s own funeral in Paris in 1849.

The final “movement,” unique in style and form, is best considered as a coda to the funeral march, as its chilling breeze blows over the grave of the newly buried hero. The halting and dramatic last measures allude faintly to the opening of Chopin’s earlier B-flat minor Scherzo, Op. 31.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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RACHMANINOFF: Selections from Preludes Opp. 3, 23 & 32


Born in Semyonovo, Russia, April 1, 1873; died in Beverly Hills, March 28, 1943
Selections from Preludes Opp. 3, 23 & 32
Composed in 1892, 1903 & 1910; approx. 45 minutes

Sergei Rachmaninoff, like so many other great pianist-composers, wrote 24 keyboard preludes that covered all the available major and minor keys. But it’s almost certain that this was not his initial goal. While the prelude sets by Bach, Chopin, Hummel, Busoni, Heller, Alkan, Cui, Scriabin, Shchedrin and Shostakovich were each conceived and written as unified collections, Rachmaninoff composed his in three installments, over a relatively long period of time.

The first to appear, the infamous prelude in C-sharp minor, was composed in 1892 and published the following year alongside some other piano miniatures as Rachmaninoff’s Op. 3. It was one of the first works the 19-year-old composer wrote as a “free artist,” having just graduated earlier in 1892 from the Moscow Conservatory. A notable success at its first performance, it has only continued to grow in popularity since then. It can now be heard in everything from movie soundtracks to Olympic skating routines, and has been sampled in the music of popular musicians running the stylistic gamut from heavy metal bands to the Beastie Boys, EnVogue and The Piano Guys.

In 1903 Rachmaninoff then assembled a set of ten preludes, Op. 23, which one critic has suggested were written primarily to divert the public’s attention away from the exasperating popularity of the C-sharp minor prelude. As with many of his works written during this period, the Op. 23 Preludes derive much of their style from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto from 1901. The wide expressive range, the inventiveness of the piano figurations, the sophisticated technique and the economy of materials all speak to Rachmaninoff’s newly-discovered confidence as an artist. Russian audiences were especially responsive to this new style and detected a specifically nationalistic quality in these Preludes.

While most sets of keyboard preludes are arranged in some kind of logical key order, the order of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 Preludes is less apparent. He alternates major and minor keys, but the sequence in which they are published relies more on relationships of musical substance than on key. The composer also considered them as somewhat independent works, and throughout his own performing career he programmed selections from Op. 23 in different orders and groupings. From this set, the martial G-minor prelude (No. 5) is indisputably the second most famous of Rachmaninoff’s piano preludes, and it is thought to have been written earlier than the others, perhaps in 1901.

Rachmaninoff’s last 13 preludes were composed and published in 1910 as Op. 32. These preludes could just as easily have been titled études—they are larger in proportion than his earlier works and more compositional in their exploration of thematic potential. (By the same token, Rachmaninoff’s first set of Études-Tableaux from 1911 are less “études” than they are “tableaux.”) The Preludes in G (No. 5) and G-sharp minor (No. 12) from this set have an added distinction—they were known to have been performed by the composer as encores after the premiere of his Third Piano Concerto in April 1910.

© 2013 Luke Howard

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Artist Bio

Olga Kern, piano

Now recognized as one of her generation’s great pianists, Olga Kern was born into a family of musicians with direct links to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and she began studying piano at age of five. In 2001 she became the first woman in more than 30 years to receive the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Also the winner of the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition at the age of 17, Ms. Kern is a laureate of eleven international competitions and has toured throughout her native Russia, in Europe and the US, as well as in Japan, South Africa and South Korea. Ms. Kern is a member of Russia’s International Academy of Arts.

Ms. Kern has enjoyed extraordinary success around the world. She has performed in many of the world’s most important venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Symphony Hall in Osaka, the Salzburger Festspielhaus, La Scala in Milan, the Tonhalle in Zurich and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

For the year 2013, in celebration of Rachmaninoff’s 140th year, Ms. Kern performed all four piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini with the Orchestre National de Lyon and Leonard Slatkin. She repeated this program in South Africa and in Warsaw, and with orchestras across the US. Among the remaining highlights of her 2013/14 season are a tour of Florida with the Detroit Symphony later this month, and engagements with the HRT Symphony of Zagreb and Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra. She will also give recitals in San Francisco, Vancouver, South Africa, Spain, Italy and Sweden.

Ms. Kern’s discography is on Harmonia Mundi and includes recordings of Chopin’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3; Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Rochester Philharmonic and a disc of Rachmaninoff transcriptions, including the Corelli Variations. Most recently, SONY released a recording of Ms. Kern performing Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano with cellist Sol Gabetta.

In addition to performing, Ms. Kern devotes her time to the support and education of developing musicians. In 2012 she and her brother, conductor Vladimir Kern, co-founded the Aspiration Foundation whose objective is to provide financial and artistic assistance to musicians throughout the world. Her website is

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