Olga Pushechnikova Kern, whose maiden name divulges her ancestral roots, and whose keyboard technique and artistry reflect the sterling heritage established by the numerous dazzling pianists who have come to the West from what is now known as the Russian Federation, played Schumann’s Concerto in Meymandi Concert Hall with the NC Symphony on November 1. It was not her first local appearance: the program was given the previous evening in Durham, and earlier on All Soul’s Day, at Meredith College (whose press releases billed her as a vocalist), Kern presented the second half of a program she gave in October at the Kennedy Center, where she earned a rave review. She will repeat that recital on November 15, at ECU, and, based on her playing in Raleigh, it would surely be worth a trip to Greenville to hear her. (See our Eastern NC calendar for details.)

Kern was the first woman to win a gold medal at the Cliburn Competition since 1969, when Cristina Ortiz took the top honor. Kern is currently doing post-graduate work at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory and in Italy, but her international career is already well underway. She took a markedly Russian approach to the Schumann (which, like that composer’s Cello Concerto, heard at Duke last month, is not the easiest showpiece to put across), infusing it with passion and fire and only rarely lingering over its more languorous phrases. This was certainly not a reading in the traditional German mode to which some listeners are surely more accustomed. Her playing was invariably clean and clear despite some ferocious tempi, and she stamped her reading with a measure of individuality that kept listeners who know the piece (or think they do) on the edges of their seats.

The pianist was partnered by another guest artist, conductor Andrea Quinn, who is apparently one of the prospects for our soon-to-be-vacated music directorship. Comparisons are, ’tis said, odious, but in comparison with the incumbent, Quinn is a highly animated ball of barely-contained energy whose kinetic podium manner suggested a combination of the Tasmanian Devil and the Wicked Witch of the West (by which we imply no particular negatives). Her strong background as a ballet conductor surely influences her symphonic style and her interpretations, too. This background is a welcome strength here, for the person she may replace possesses virtually no theatrical experience and is not known for passion or fire or, for that matter, innovation. In comparison, Quinn seemed like a breath of fresh air, although it’s a fact that all the proposed guest conductors should fare well, since they will all be doing at least something that they feel represents their artistry at its best. Quinn has a left hand and knows what it should be used for during a concert. And for the most part, she elicited some pretty wonderful playing from the only-slightly-augmented band. (Among those augmentees, incidentally, was UNC’s distinguished clarinetist and conductor, Michael Votta, Jr.) It’s a given that the NCS is string poor, but the strings it has do well enough when a person who knows what he (or she) is doing is in command.

During the opening work, the rarely-heard Symphony No. 1 of Samuel Barber, the brasses from time to time overpowered the strings, but the overall results were bracing. From the main floor, the low strings had an especially hard time projecting; in the program’s second half, which was devoted to Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” and which we heard from the upper balcony, things seemed better.

The Barber is a noteworthy score, and its neglect by American orchestras and conductors is hard to fathom. Apparently it is, as Randolph Foy, Music Director of the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association, said during the pre-concert conversation, much harder than it sounds, but Quinn managed to make it sound convincing, and the response of the audience was warm. (Those who’d care to hear the piece again may wish to seek out the first recording of it, by the NY Philharmonic under the leadership of Bruno Walter(!), available on a mid-price Sony CD.) It was a treat to hear this important American score done live, and it was bracing to sense the commitment that Quinn and the artists of the NCS brought to it.

In the Schumann, Quinn again proved her mettle. She and Kern enjoyed what was clearly a solid mutual understanding of the work, and as a result the orchestra was “with” the soloist at every point, even where there were unexpected (to listeners, at least) departures from the norm (as, for example, in the finale, where there were some major tempo adjustments). Balance was fine, and the orchestra accompanied the soloist well. We’ve had many disappointing concerto performances here in the past 20 years, thanks in part to insensitivity (or indifference) from the podium, and thanks in part to some noisy and often over-the-hill guests, several of whom do better on talk shows than in concerts. On November 1, things came together admirably.

The concert ended with Elgar’s best-known large-scale score, which received a glowing reading marred only by the lack of an organ, which in proper halls with proper equipage can add so much to the richness and depth of the music. Earlier, Foy had discussed the work’s many merits; annotator Kenneth C. Viant’s notes, which tend to be superior to those of the NCS’ other scribbler, were good enough to clip and file away for future reference. Quinn is British, and (according to an interview in the 10/27 issue of the N&O by our occasional colleague Roy C. Dicks – available online at the N&O ‘s website) she has led this music on previous occasions, in the theatre. That she both knows and loves it was apparent from start to finish, and the performance earned the public’s demonstrative approval.

There were more latecomers than usual, and because the Barber lasts around twenty minutes, they had to wait a while to get in. Perhaps some were refugees from ‘cross the street, where there was a concurrent appearance of two other women, of the political ilk, whose mere presence complicated parking on an evening when three of the four BTI Center halls were in service. We think rallies should be held at the Sportpalast or at the fairgrounds’ Cow Palace, a.k.a. Dorton Arena.

Is Quinn a viable candidate, or is she merely window-dressing for the sake of “inclusiveness”? From our perspective, the lineup’s “token woman” must be taken seriously as a conductor who merits consideration. She is currently Music Director of the New York City Ballet. If offered the job, would she leave Manhattan, or would she be an absentee landlord? And will NC break its long tradition of engaging American conductors? These are issues the search committee must address. It will be interesting to see how things pan out over the next several years.

[This program will be repeated tonight, November 2, in the same venue.]