150 Years of Rachmaninoff with Olga Kern
American Pianists Association Grand Encounters 23/24 season begins with a journey through romantic works by Rachmaninoff, Schumann and Gershwin performed by the illustrious pianist Olga Kern. Designed as a celebration of the 150th year since Rachmaninoff’s birth, highlights of the concert include Schumann’s Carnaval, an exquisite collection of miniatures representing a masked ball, and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Olga joined us after a recent performance in Chicago to discuss her connection to Rachmaninoff and her thoughts on performing those highlight pieces.
An edited transcript follows:
Describe your connection with Rachmaninoff:
I am so happy, first of all, that this year is, of course, this very special year: Rachmaninoff’s 150-year anniversary. Everyone is really celebrating it. And of course, for me, this composer is very special in my family. My great-great grandmother was a singer, a mezzo soprano, and she was from Kharkiv, from Ukraine. She worked in the Kharkiv Opera Theater and was singing there all her life, and she knew Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff wanted to do a few concerts together with her.
In our family it's very special; we have programs from the concerts they did together. It's priceless, really, for me as a child growing up, knowing that Rachmaninoff was performing and accompanying my great-great grandmother in the concerts. In Rachmaninoff's two memoirs it is written exactly the dates and the places where they were performing together.
So, feeling that this genius touched my family, it was very special since I was a little girl who started playing piano.
How do Rachmaninoff’s transcriptions compare?
You know, you still feel Rachmaninoff in the transcriptions, even though it's different composers and he have these fantastic transcriptions of Bach’s Violin Suite and Bizet and Schubert. But anyway, the touch. Something special about his language is in the way you can hear it in the music of those composers with the transcriptions.
I must say that when I heard him in of course, the famous recordings of his Schumann Carnaval or his Chopin Sonata, how he plays, how he interpreted it. It's total Rachmaninoff. It's so unique and so incredible because he was such a genius. His understanding of these composers was so different that when I remember the first time I heard his Schumann Carnaval, I wanted to take everything that he's doing, which was absolutely impossible because it's Rachmaninoff’s interpretation.
And I said to myself, I can't listen to it anymore. I need to stop because it's so powerful. It's so personal that I said, no, I need to totally get out of that Rachmaninoff touch and do something different with Schumann. And I know I'm doing it totally different. But every time when I'm thinking about those recordings of his of that specific piece, I understand how huge that compositional mind of that genius was when he performed as a composer.
It's the same with the transcriptions. It's his vision of that music. And you can feel that language in a way, Rachmaninoff’s language.
Tell us about performing Schumann’s “Carnaval”:
I programed this recital in this way, as I already mentioned, because Rachmaninoff played Schumann’s Carnaval, and because it's Rachmaninoff’s celebration recital for me. I saw that this piece is so important in his life because he recorded it—not so many pieces by other composers except Chopin, he recorded. So this piece was very important for him. That's why I wanted to acknowledge him as a pianist as well, not just as a composer, but the genius pianist.
This piece went through all my life. I played this piece for many years, and it went through different stages with me. I think now I must say that I found that very personal meaning of this piece. For me, yes it's a carnival. It is monumental. But for me, it has one line from the beginning of that important introduction to the end. At a carnival and there are all these the masks and his favorite people and ideas and you know even Chopin there and Paganini. And it's short! It comes, and it goes. And this momentum—you need to have that line which connects all these different images, different people, different ideas in his mind, because he was so incredible, these million details in one piece.
Sometimes it's easy to just go in and swim too much. You need to pick everything and keep it as long as you can. So, it's a big line. It's a carnival! Yes, all of this momentum, but there is bigger idea and this is the most important thing to show that I am introducing that firework of great ideas and moments and I am going in it, and I'm taking my audience with me and I'm telling the story of all of these different people.
Tell us about the second half of your program:
I'm happy that I am finishing the Gershwin the first half because then I go to a totally different world, and it's very dramatic world of all Rachmaninoff the second half. And as I said, to perform the Corelli Variations, which I think is the highest point of his composing life: the solo piece, which has everything in such a short, less than 20-minute piece.
But there is so much drama and passion and love. It's like a life of a person from beginning to end, from just a very easy, very simple melody of Corelli. He transformed it to something. His language, that incredible passion and love in in that variation and that’s how it goes. And there is never a stop of emotions in this piece until the end when the last variation finishes in a really huge sound, he writes of four forte. And then it's only just the bass ostinato one octave going again and again, he repeats it slower and slower. It's like that life stops. That's it. It's the end. And you think that he finished the piece?
No. And this is afterlife. The end of this piece is so unique for him. It finishes to completely nothing. As he wrote his very early Opus three, Number two, a C minor prelude, how he finishes to five pianissimo. It's just everything goes away the same here in in this Corelli Variations everything goes to afterlife, and you just think what is next.
So for me when I play the piece or when I teach the piece (I'm teaching at the Manhattan School of Music and some of my students play this piece) I say, you need to be careful. You just can't just play it. It's just not that. There is so much more meaning in this piece than just feelings. It's not just emotions. It's a philosophical drama and you need to feel it. It takes years and years to really understand it in the right way.
Tell us about life as a concert pianist
I think this process is just wonderful to be able to be alone with this wonderful instrument of sometimes hours and hours and finding something special. And of course, you want to share it. This is your audience. And this is what I love to do.
But there is so much distraction in life and sometimes unfortunately not very pleasant. I try to always stay positive. I say to my students, I think this the positivity you can find also strengths and you teach yourself how to be strong. And I love good company. I love to go to opera, I love theater.
You know, everything. What connects me to inspires me, to connect me to my music, to the composers and performing in the moment. It's very important for me. It's like a sponge: take everything positive. It's a great learning process. And for us, we get lucky as musicians. We learn all our lives.
So it’s a really great profession, and I'm just going through my life trying to give my knowledge to my students and to my son. Also giving what I know of this instrument to my audience, and I know that is born that especially they respond when I when I feel that respond, I don't need to hear it.
I feel it. You know, this energy, the Life concerts, we are back from the crazy Covid times, and we are back on stage. And to feel that the energy from the audience is just so wonderful, so I will continue as long as I can, and I will always be positive if possible.
We look forward to hearing you on October 29!
I can't wait to be in Indianapolis! It's very soon. Thank you so much.
Tickets to Olga's performance are on sale now!