In “Playing on the Edge,” a television documentary about the drama that played out during the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Russian pianist Olga Kern showed conductor James Conlon a score of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto that had belonged to her great grandmother.
The century-old score no longer had any binding, just a bunch of loose pages that had begun to crumble due to age and exposure to the elements. It turned out to be just one of many links Kern has with the eminent Russian composers of the past.
Her great-great grandmother, who was a noted mezzo-soprano, had planned to perform some Rachmaninoff songs in a recital when her accompanist fell ill. The composer, who happened to be visiting the same Russian town, heard about the singer's predicament and offered to fill in at the last minute.
“My grandfather kept the program from this concert,” said Kern, who will make her Oklahoma City Philharmonic debut this week playing the Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.” “I'm writing a book right now about all the memories I've had with my life and career.”
Kern's musical lineage also extends to Tchaikovsky, the celebrated Russian composer who happened to be a friend of her great-great-great grandmother. Kern's family still has a photo of their relative with Tchaikovsky.
The Russian-born Kern, who now lives in New York City with her teenage son, has always had a passion for Rachmaninoff. She believes that stems from the fact that her mother, who is also a pianist, was learning the Third Concerto when she was pregnant with Kern.
“When I hear Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony or one of his piano concerti, I feel like I know this music as well as if I had composed it myself,” Kern said recently. “As Russians, we were born with this music, it was always around us. It's natural that you feel like every note belongs to you.”
While most pianists include the Rachmaninoff Second and Third Concertos in their active repertoire, Kern regularly performs the four numbered concertos along with the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”
Those five works span nearly all of the composer's output, from his Op. 1 (the First Piano Concerto) to his Op. 43 (the Paganini Rhapsody). Rachmaninoff only composed two additional works after he completed the Rhapsody.
“Playing all of those works has allowed me to observe every period of his musical life,” Kern explained. “The First Concerto has the same form and structure as the Grieg Concerto but the musical language is Rachmaninoff's. You can hear all the pianistically difficult and challenging language in (concertos) Two and Three, while in the Fourth, that language goes deeper and the music is more polyphonic.
“You really see his genius in the Rhapsody — how he transforms the Paganini theme. It's like he was trying to show a person's life from beginning to end. But the work ends with a question mark and you never get the question answered. It's so philosophical.”
After the disastrous premiere of his first symphony in 1897, Rachmaninoff fell into clinical depression that resulted in writer's block. After three months of therapy administered by physician Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninoff completed his Second Piano Concerto in 1901. The composer dedicated his concerto to Dahl for helping to restore his self-confidence.
Thanks to its tremendous melodic appeal, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto has figured prominently in many Hollywood films, from “Brief Encounter” to “The Seven Year Itch.” One of its themes was even transformed into the popular song “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”
“When you hear Rachmaninoff's music, you understand how important his country was to him, especially after he came to the United States,” Kern said. “He put the feelings he had for his country in his music. It was the only way he could show people how beautiful his music was.
“And even though his concerti are some of the most difficult works in the repertoire, it's always a pleasure to perform Rachmaninoff. I find something new in his music every time I play one of his works. Every concerto is an exciting journey.”
Titled “Russian Enchantment,” the penultimate concert in the orchestra's 2012-13 classics season will also feature Stravinsky's 1947 suite to “Petrouchka.” Joel Levine will conduct.
When I hear Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony or one of his piano concerti, I feel like I know this music as well as if I had composed it myself. As Russians, we were born with this music, it was always around us. It's natural that you feel like every note belongs to you.”