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.
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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.”