Pianist Olga Kern

By Dana Abbott

OLGA KERN’S Carmel Music Society program on Sunday was thoughtfully planned and visually attractive on several levels. Her choices created a satisfying musical arc. Kern began with a set of Ten Variations in B-flat by Beethoven on a theme by Salieri. (This set from the 1790s is found in the numerous WoO works–without opus numbers–catalogued in 1955 by Georg Kinsky and Hans Halm.) Rhythm, harmony and invention are small scale and charming yet student-like. Beethoven worked here on the foundation of his craft, building toward the genius stature he would later attain. Salieri’s tune was also small scale, but the piece was a good warm-up for what came next. 

The major work on the program was the composer’s Sonata in C Major, Waldstein, of 1804. Kern’s command of this challenging piece was total. Her keyboard artistry was visually displayed by live overhead video projected above the stage like subtitles. Such technical innovation is a major asset, especially for keyboard concerts, as music lovers, especially pianists, can watch the drama unfold and enjoy the dancing grace of the artist at work. The Waldstein sonata is a mature, innovative work with ringing bell-like motifs, an adagio that leads attacca to a finale that makes enormous technical demands, including a glissando effect, and almost symphonic in scope.

The mood then took a big step into the luscious set of Three Preludes by George Gershwin, all polish, swing and bluesy. Certainly the second one was taken faster than usual, but the appeal was hardly diminished, their dance suite character clearly laid out. Kern concluded the first half with a small addition to the program, an Earl Wild arrangement of Fascinating Rhythm. Fascinating indeed!

The concert package included a costume change for the artist from rich red of the opening half to silver tones for the second. Russian music was Russian-born Kern’s choice here. Sergei Rachmaninoff was represented by three early piano preludes, in E Minor, G Minor and D Major respectively. These pieces are full of Russian character and high technical demands, if they do not develop the lush richness of the composer in full maturity. Tchaikovsky’s Meditation, from Op 72, followed, a simpler piece composed for use by advanced students, often found in sets of short pieces. Kern then chose two etudes by Alexander Scriabin, a fresh turn into the harmonic avant-garde. In Scriabin’s synthesis of Chopin and Debussy, there was just enough melody and form to keep listener interest. However, one probably does not leave a concert with Scriabin tunes dancing in one’s head. 

Of a different nature and earlier time, Mily Balakirev’s grand display piece, Islamey, brought a return to a recognizable tune, albeit with hair-raising virtuosic exhibition. A simply structured ABA form with a memorable melody at its center, Islamey concluded the concert with contrapuntal fireworks and, a simplistic, pounding final cadence. 

The pianist’s hands, dancing with balletic grace across the keyboard, with the mechanics of arm crossings and intricate digital work is something one does not often encounter. It could be addictive.  

Olga Kern commented from the stage that encores were a favorite part of her concerts. She offered a generous three. Prokofiev’s Etude in C Minor showed off the composer’s unique inventiveness, quirky melodic instincts and his clangorous pianism, with brevity. She described Anatoly Liadov as a composer who named his musical miniatures with precise accuracy. His Music Box showed exactly what she meant, including a brief ritard suggesting the box had wound down. Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee concluded a carefully thought out and beautifully presented concert.