By Montague Gammon III
Pianist Olga Kern loves to share what she loves, and what she loves is music.
The sheer unbridled joy she takes in making music and sharing it with her “friends and her fans,” comes through in the champagne-worthy effervescence with which she talks about playing the piano.
This Van Cliburn Piano Competition winner, whose great-great grandmother was friends with Tchaikovsky and whose mezzo-soprano great-grandmother once concertized with Sergei Rachmaninoff as an accompanist, will be sharing the Harrison Opera House stage February 17 with soprano Renée Fleming, arguably the most prominent opera singer of any voice in the world today.
This preview concert for the Virginia Arts Festival feels like a “duo performance,” says the articulate, Russian accented, Kern. She likens her collaboration with Fleming to “intimate” chamber music, a similarity she finds especially strong in the concert opening Schumann 8 song cycle, Frauenliebe und –leben, which she also says “was always [her] dream” to perform.
“It’s about a woman’s life, a womans love; it’s a really incredible cycle. It was not performed for many years. It’s great to bring it back; it sounds really fresh in our time.”
A half dozen songs by Rachmaninoff follow – “some of the most beautiful songs by him, a really good selection” – and here Kern is on home turf. Her grounding in Rachmaninoff, and by extension in classical piano, dates to pre-partum days, when her mother was practicing the Russian composer’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
She says that her great-grandmother “of course” sang some of these same songs, but does note the different demands of the mezzo and the soprano ranges.
The Rachmaninoff “is fantastic” in the way “it really shows [Fleming’s] voice,” Kern adds, noting also that “the piano part is incredibly sparking.”
(The Russian composer and piano virtuoso also furnishes her with her only instrumental solo of the evening, his transcription of his own song, “Lilacs,” which “really blends well with the whole set.”)
“There is so much piano in all the songs [of the concert], it’s not really necessary to play a solo piano,” she says.
Kern has even had a dream in which Rachmaninoff played for her.
Another six songs by Richard Strauss follow the post-Rachmaninoff intermission.
“In Strauss a piano sounds like an orchestra… a really big sound! I just love to play this; it shows the piano in a different way. It feels like an orchestra. You can play piano and do different instruments. It’s a hard piece. A piano can really make a sound as big as an orchestra, a full beautiful sound like an orchestra.”
“I’ve always wanted to sing on the piano,” Kern says more generally, “[playing with] a voice gives you a great example, how to make a great line, how to prolong the sound.”
When joining Fleming, she says, “I need to be really careful. A voice is a really special thing. I need to listen really carefully.”
Which of course, is exactly what the audience will be doing when Olga Kern and Renée Fleming play as “a duo.”
Renée Fleming in Recital
Olga Kern, Piano
7:30 p.m., February 17
Harrison Opera House
190 E. Virginia Beach Blvd, Norfolk