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Olga Kern is building up an impressive resume of concerts and recitals in venues across this state. The Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition issued an extraordinary two gold medals; Kern won one, Stanislav Ioudenitch won the second. Kern was the first woman to win a gold metal in the Cliburn competition in more than thirty years. Her performance of the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto with the North Carolina Symphony in 2002 was followed by her first appearance on the Wright Auditorium stage as part of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts series. The pianist has been guest artist on three different musical series in Charlotte in recent seasons. Kern’s winning combination of precise virtuosity with a charismatic artistic personality made her return to the pastoral East Carolina University Campus all the more highly anticipated.
Three diverse harpsichord pieces by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) proved to be ideal appetizers and warm ups for Kern’s otherwise hearty Romantic menu. Scarlatti’s sonatas are in one movement with two sections, each marked to be repeated if the performer wishes to do so. While many sonatas are based upon a single theme, some have two or even three themes. Sonata in A Major, K. 24 proved to be unusually substantial, with a mercurial mix of fast and elegiac slow themes, enhanced by Kern’s observing full repeats. She wisely made no attempt to suggest the dry sound and flat dynamics of a harpsichord. She exploited the full color and dynamic range of the modern piano while exhibiting extraordinary clarity of articulation in fast passages. Sonata in D Minor, K. 9 gave Kern ample scope to display her skill at conjuring a Romantic, perhaps pastoral sound-scape. Sonata in C Major, K.380 is one of the more frequently programmed Scarlatti works. Kern played it with great panache, excelling and reveling in its headlong speed, insistent rhythms, and trumpet-like fanfares.
The Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58 by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) came next and provided Kern ample opportunity to demonstrate her masterful musicianship. She chose to subordinate the composer’s long, flowing themes and imaginative arabesques within an over-arching view of the work’s four movements. Her control of dynamics was breathtaking. Her rock-solid fortes had no spreading of the focus of pitch and her hushed pianissimos seemed to float into the hall. Her keyboard palette seemed unlimited in variety and her ability to cleanly articulate complex textures at fast speeds never ceased to amaze the listener. She brought out an unexpected freshness to the too familiar slow third movement, Marche Funèbre.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) composed his Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 36 in 1913. Feeling it was too long and had passages of busy work, the composer brought out a vastly superior revised version in 1931. The work’s exceptional difficulties combined with the need for the pianist to have large hands, winnows the field of potential interpreters. Olga Kern’s arsenal of virtuoso technique is coupled with enormous upper body power and hands with long fingers and a wide compass. Her execution of Rachmaninov’s visceral fortes and his long-breathed melodic lines was exemplary. The subtlety and variety of tone colors she conjured up from the keyboard seemed limitless. Her performance of the second movement was entrancing, while power generated by the finale left the audience in silence for a moment.
A no-holds-barred performance of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody in C, S. 242/2, ended the announced program. It included a cadenza by Rachmaninov!
Wright Auditorium was barely half full but the audience was attentive. Kern eventually gave a generous three encores; Rachmaninov’s notorious Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3/2, a transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumble Bee,” and a Hopak, a Russian Folk Dance by a composer whose name I did not catch.