Heritage and art inspire pianist Olga Kern 

click to enlarge Olga Kern - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Olga Kern

In 2001, Olga Kern won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first woman to receive the honor in more than 30 years. She appears next week in The City, playing a program of works by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann.

What is your relation to Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky? My great-grandmother was a mezzo-soprano and she was singing Rachmaninoff songs when her accompanist got sick. As you know, these are difficult on the piano. Rachmaninoff was touring and heard this. He offered to be her accompanist! We still have programs from that concert! Anyway, her mother was a good friend of Tchaikovsky. Our family has photos and letters from Tchaikovsky to her, and these are just priceless.

What is behind the mystique of Russian pianism? The Russian school definitely exists, but many of the great teachers live elsewhere. The Russians teach the importance of music, to love practicing and discipline. This was always in us. Without practicing, nothing can be great — not for doctors, engineers and certainly not for musicians (laughs). Everybody has technique nowadays, but it is still the heart and soul that are most important. We have the responsibility to reveal the beauty of music, and only great musicians can deliver this magic. It is why people come back, and it is also why some win competitions and never get to a higher level. It is very difficult to maintain this.

You made your Herbst Theatre debut in 2010. What were your first impressions of San Francisco? After New York, which is my home, it is still my favorite American city. San Francisco has the most incredible nature — I love the hills, the mountains, the water, it is all so beautiful. It reminds me of Europe so much.

What is the purpose of art?
Without great music, painters would not have produced their art, and without painters, composers would not have created music as we know it. I think art touches the soul and makes it pure. A great classical performance can leave the hall with the pure emotion of happiness. It touches the soul, the heart, and stirs the emotions. Classical music will always be alive for this healing.

Is there a future for the tradition of pianism?
We will never know what Liszt sounded like. If Liszt had been born in this age, he might have sounded differently. I was in the Liszt museum in Budapest two months ago, and his piano felt totally different. But he was touched by God. Regardless of the era, the great ones always find a way.


Olga Kern

Presented by Chamber Music San Francisco

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 3 p.m. April 15
Tickets: $48
Contact: (415) 759-1756, www.chambermusicsf.org

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Elijah Ho

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