By Jeff Maisey

Earlier this year, the Virginia Arts Festival celebrated in grand style the 150th birthday of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff with a series of chamber music concerts featuring the internationally acclaimed Dali Quartet and violinist Tianwa Yang as well as Sterling Elliott (cello), Debra Wendells Cross (flute), and Darrin Milling (trombone).  

Front and center for most of these performances was the phenomenal, often animated pianist Olga Kern, who opened the spring Arts Festival season with a dazzling solo recital.

For Kern the performances hit home in a most personally joyous way.

“Rachmaninoff was a good friend of my great grandmother (Vera Pushechnikova),” Kern said. “She was a mezzo-soprano. They performed together quite a lot. He was accompanying her, so that was very special. In  two of Rachmaninoff’s memoirs she is mentioned and there are the dates that they played.  

“Every time I perform Rachmaninoff’s music I feel his spirit is with me.”

On October 20 (Ferguson Center), October 21 (Chrysler Hall) and October 22 (Sandler Center), not only will the otherworldly energy force of Rachmaninoff be accompanying Kern on stage, so too will the flesh and blood of the mighty Virginia Symphony Orchestra. 

According to Virginia Arts Festival Executive Director Rob Cross, who is also a percussionist in the Symphony, Olga Kern and the orchestra will be performing a rare feat: playing all five of Rachmaninoff’s dynamic piano concertos in a single weekend.

Why will this trio of performances be so challenging?  

“They are rarely performed for multiple of reasons,” said Virginia Symphony Orchestra conductor Eric Jacobsen. “The first, I’d say, to play any piece by a composer and then pair it with other works by the same composer is a statement.

“Rachmaninoff is one of these composers we love for so many reasons,” Jacobsen continued. “Not only is he a storyteller but he is one on the most enigmatic composers for the piano; the piano being an instrument we all really love for so many different reasons. So to take this storytelling communication of Rachmaninoff and pair it with this incredible enigmatic writing that’s so virtuosic — that’s enough already. And then, maybe the biggest asterisk of all of this is that performing two of his concertos in one evening for a mere mortal is impossible. That’s not something anyone can do, except for this incredibly elite (pianist). Olga was one of the first-ever to play all five concertos together..this is just over-the-top unbelievable and awe inspiring.” 

Olga Kern’s early life was almost entirely consumed by the music of Rachmaninoff as she learned to play the piano. Kern was 17 years old when she won first prize in the first Rachmaninoff International Competition in Moscow.

“That was a really important competition for me,” said Olga Kern. “I was so much into Rachmaninoff’s music. It was two solo recitals and chamber music. I played Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata. The final round was Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto with an orchestra. 

I was just 17. Being into Rachmaninoff’s music; I read about his life. It was such an amazing experience for me. It helped me to grow up and understand his ideas and his compositions.”

As the young Olga Kern continued to perfect her performances of Rachmaninoff’s work, she also dedicated much of her research and passion into unlocking the brilliance of her beloved composer.  

“He knew exactly how to write for piano,” she said. “If you look at his scores you’ll see it’s almost black sometimes — it’s that many notes. 

“At first it’s scary when you are reading it, but then it feels comfortable because he knew exactly what the piano can or cannot do. He really put the piano in a special place — the same as Chopin and Beethoven. He made the piano very special in all his compositions for piano. 

“In other compositions for symphonies are absolutely amazing. The harmonies, the language he used…it’s just very romantic.”

The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto Festival, as the trio of October concerts are billed, will provide the audiences an opportunity to hear the progression of the composer. The listener will also realize the immense talent of his work even at a relatively early age.

Ironically, just as Olga Kern won the Rachmaninoff International Competition at age 17, Rachmaninoff himself was 17 years old when he composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# minor, Op. 1 in 1891. 

His first concerto is said to be youthful in its flashiness, and is indeed impressive in its barrage of notes. Concerto No. 4 is rarely performed and in contemporary pop culture terms would be considered an album track or “deep cut,” a description Jacobsen amusingly agrees with.

“You could totally call it a deep cut,” stated Jacobsen, adding, “That being said, I think if we were to play the fourth concerto as much as we perform the second, third, and Variations, it would become as beloved. We don’t play it as much because it is incredibly challenging for both the Symphony and the soloist.”  

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 is widely regarded as the greatest piano concerto ever written. Rach 3 has the reputation as being one of the most technically difficult, specifically the section before the cadenza. 

“The third concerto is one of the hardest to play both for the pianist and the orchestra,” said Jacobsen, “but its in the vernacular of the modern day orchestra; we know it so well.”  

Jacobsen said the complexity of each concerto composition — including Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 —is incredibly dense at times and the orchestra looks to Olga Kern’s direction for clarity. 

For Hampton Roads audiences who love piano works, this series of performances are a must-experience.  

“We encourage people to come see the full cycle of performance that weekend,” Jacobsen said. “It’s something that won’t happen again.”  



Olga Kern & Virginia Symphony Orchestra


Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30


Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18


Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43