Many CVNC writers were very impressed by Olga Kern’s fresh and vital interpretation of the often-abused Piano Concerto of Robert Schumann during her recent concerts in the Triangle with the North Carolina Symphony. Rave press reviews of her recital tour whetted appetites for her November 15 appearance in Wright Auditorium, given as part of East Carolina’s Alexander Performing Arts series. Along with Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall and Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center, Wright Auditorium has some of the finest acoustics in the state.

In 2001, Olga (Pushechnikova) Kern, along with Stanislav Ioudenitch, shared the two Gold Medals at the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. She is the first woman to achieve this distinction since 1969.

Fabulous technique and bravura performances were never in doubt throughout her unusually imaginative program in Greenville. Even more satisfying was the depth and personal insight she brought to some of the more familiar works.

Two works by Robert Schumann opened the program. Kern more than “hit the ground running” with fast and tricky passage-work in the Toccata in C, Op. 7. This early example of the composer’s lifelong fascination with the piano étude opens with rapid and treacherous double-noted figurations that suffuse the entire piece. Add to this, in the words of Joan Chissell (writing in the BBC Music Guide: Schumann Piano Music ) “octaves, repeated notes requiring rapid finger changes, wide skips, contrasts of legato and staccato and of ff and pp ” – within a strict classical framework. After this technical tour de force , the full palette of her poetic sensibility was evident in a highly personal view of Kinderszenen , Op. 15. These dozen little vignettes, meant to be an adult’s remembrance of childhood, effectively defined the nature of the Romantic piano suite. The moods range from poignant, but not sentimental, to playful, tender, reflective, and assertive and boisterous to the simple and unaffected eloquence of the famous “Träumerei.” The latter, played in context, was even unworldly than when she played it as an encore at her performance with the NCS in Raleigh.

Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Piano, Op. 26, is spiked with twelve-tone writing that is in sharp contrast to his more familiar “Adagio” or the Violin Concerto. Kern brought out the full astringency of the first movement but did not neglect Barber’s unique wistful sense of sad remembrance later. The composer infused other expressive means with twelve-tone technique to create one of the most significant sonatas of the mid-20th century. Barber was always true to himself despite the dominance of academic serialism of the time. A century of audience resistance may have vindicated composers such as Barber and Menotti, who consistently hewed to their tonal vision.

A drawback of the hall’s good acoustics is that everything can be heard. More children than usually attend Triangle concerts were present, but one cannot hold just the youngsters responsible for all the seat-squeaking in Wright Auditorium. It was as bad as Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium during the Gosling years with the NCS, following the first major hall renovation there.

After intermission, Kern held the audience in a spell with a riveting performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Every color of the piano was revealed, and one sometimes lost all sense of time in this marvelous voyage of exploration and discovery. The squeaking seats were stilled, although one variation was marred by radio talk coming from security or staff. Kern ought to commit this work to CD.

Sergei Taneyev’s Prelude and Fugue, Op. 29, was a well-crafted exercise but had only a fleeting Russian character.

Kern’s performance of Mili Balakirev’s seldom-performed and rarely-recorded “Islamey” was breathtaking. This oriental fantasy is constructed of variations on two themes. The first, a violent, rhythmical Kabardian dance tune containing a characteristic augmented second that became an over-worked “orientalism,” contrasted with a more lyrical theme. James Gibbs, writing in Keyboard Music (ed. Denis Matthews), reminds us that it “remains to this day one of the most daunting war-horses in the repertoire.” The excellent program notes aptly alluded to its “wicked, knuckle-busting difficulty,” and only a live performance can allow one fully to appreciate an artist’s achievement with the score. With only two recordings of the work listed in the current Penguin Guide , Kern ought to commit “Islamey,” too, to both CD and DVD. A performance of the work has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Despite the incredible athletic workout, two genuine standing ovations led to Kern giving two very unusual encores; thanks to Meredith piano faculty member Margaret Evans for helping identify them. The first was Rachmaninov’s transcription of Mussorgsky’s “Hopak,” and the second was a chromatic piece by Olivier Messiaen, possibly one of the Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus . It ended with a striking aural and visual image – a tone cluster executed with the pianist’s left elbow!