Piano Music Runs Deep in the Soul of Olga Kern

By Mark, Steven | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, June 8, 2016 | Go to article overview

Piano Music Runs Deep in the Soul of Olga Kern


Mark, Steven, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


Classical music, more than visual arts and certainly pop music, is all about tradition. It's about who knows whom and who carries the torch for a particular composer or style.

Pianist Olga Kern is steeped in the lore and legacy of great Russian music. Her great-grandmother, a singer, performed with Rachmaninoff, as documented in his memoirs, and her great-great-grandmother, a pianist, was a friend of Tchaikovsky.

"Tchaikovsky wrote to her an incredible letter, which we have, and we have absolutely unique photos from Tchaikovsky to her," Kern said. Her family has donated other documents connected to Tchaikovsky to a museum. "I was always proud of that," she said. "I thought that something special happened with my family."

'FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE'

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $34-$92

Info: ticketmaster.com or 866-448-7849

But that link goes beyond ancestry for Kern, who performs a program of Russian music with the Hawai'i Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

In 2001 she became the first woman in 30 years to take the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Cliburn, though an American, became almost an adopted son of Russia after he won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. Kern's parents were at those performances, and to this day Russian musicians consider the charismatic Texan, who died in 2013, a "hero," Kern said.

Kern's fascination with Cliburn was such that she participated in his competition twice -- she went by Olga Pushechnikova in 1997, later changing it to make things more palatable for international audiences. She got ousted in the first round that time but, leaving her toddler son behind in Russia, came back in 2001 "because I wanted to meet Van Cliburn," Kern said.

Though Kern is now 41 and is considered one of the greatest pianists of her generation, she gushes like a schoolgirl when she talks about Cliburn.

"When he hugged me the first time, I felt his (cologne) all over me, and I didn't want to wash my clothes after that. I didn't wash my hand after he shook my hand," said Kern, who has followed in Cliburn's footsteps by founding her own music education program and piano competition, which launches this fall in New Mexico.

KERN'S ATTACHMENT to piano and piano music runs deep into her soul, and she feels it was ingrained into her before birth. When she was 12, she was able to learn Rachmaninoff's challenging third piano concerto in two weeks.

"I felt like I knew music already before I was born," she said. "I asked my mother, 'How is it possible? I feel like I know this piece already.' And she said, 'Maybe it's because when I was pregnant with you, I was playing this concerto a lot.'

"I always wanted to play this beautiful instrument, this monumental instrument. …

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