Olga Kern won the Gold Medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Thus she became the first woman to achieve this distinction in over 30 years. Her two successive triumphal New York City recitals in 2004 — her debut in Carnegie's Zankel Hall followed eleven days later by an unprecedented recital in Isaac Stern Auditorium at the invitation of Carnegie Hall — heralded an artist with more to offer than mere flawless technique and keyboard fireworks.
A packed house in the intimate Sunrise Theater heard Kern in an imaginative and challenging program presented by the Arts Council of Moore County. Her clean articulation in fast passagework and refined control of dynamics were amply displayed in three contrasting sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). As music master to the oldest daughter of King John of Portugal, Scarlatti composed some 555 one-movement sonatas for harpsichord. These little jewels abound in innovative dance rhythms, effects for crossed-hands, and imitative techniques such as strumming guitars. Kern played all the repeats. Rushing scales and toccata-like lines characterized the fast-paced Sonata in A, K.24. Sonata in D minor, K.9, has a sad love song spun out over a guitar-like accompaniment. Sonata in C, K.159, is fast-paced and playful.
The Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), adheres more strictly to classical sonata form and is not as filled with fantasy or histrionics as its predecessor, Opus 35. The first movement is formed around a predominantly rhythmic theme contrasted with a melodic one. A nostalgic trio is set within a brilliant, short scherzo. The inspired heart of the work is the Largo, which is in song form. The vigorous, rhythmic Finale is in rondo form. Kern's command of dynamic range, from the most hushed pp to a hall-shaking forte, was astonishing. Her control of phrasing helped unify the diverse movements and make a strong interpretative statement.
The Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36, of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), was published in 1913, but the composer became dissatisfied with it, complaining about its inordinate length and busywork. He cut some 120 bars from the original, pared some of the more extravagant virtuoso effects, and made the textures more transparent for the revised version of 1931. Kern wove Rachmaninov's brooding, endless melodies beautifully while seeming effortlessly to deploy a virtuoso's quiver of technique. Powerful waves of sonority were contrasted with extensive passages of hushed, bittersweet melancholy. Kern projects a restrained image at the keyboard, sitting erect and with almost all motion confined to her lower arms and hands, and with a subtle display of expression on her face. With no attempt to pantomime the drama of a piece, her concession to showmanship is an operatic toss of the arm at the end of work with a loud, theatrical finish. Liszt would have approved.
Liszt certainly would not have found anything to fault in Kern's barnstorming and bracing tear through the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, in C-sharp minor. It is by far the most famous of the composer's set of fifteen, published in 1851-53. Kern pulled out all the stops and provided plenty of red meat for both the connoisseurs and any "groundlings" present.
Kern's three encores included Rachmaninov's transcriptions of the Hopak dance from Mussorgsky's opera Sorochintsy Fair and of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee." In between she played "Spinning Wheel" by Swiss composer Charles Lisberg, a score she found in a library. She said her then-young son so loved the piece she had constantly to repeat it, and it inspired him to study the piano. A search of Grove Music Online and Oxford Music Online failed to turn up any information on the composition itself.
Kern is the Yamaha Piano Company's top artist, and its New York office treated her in high style, furnishing a fine instrument from Charlotte and a company tuner who was present at the concert just in case any adjustments were needed. Kern produced an even, full, and warm tone.