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Olga Kern to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Olga Kern will celebrate New Year’s Eve with the help of a family friend named Tchaikovsky.

The renowned pianist will perform the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe at 1 and 5 p.m. on Monday.

Kern’s great-great-great grandmother was also a pianist and was a good friend of the man who also wrote “The Nutcracker.”

“We have a lot of letters from him to her and from her to him and some interesting photos,” the pianist said in a telephone interview from New York. “It’s all about musical moments. He dedicated some piano pieces to her.”

The Russian-born Kern began learning the piece with the booming opening octaves when she was just 14.

Tchaikovsky wrote the concerto in 1874 and 1875. It remains one of his most popular works and among the best-known of all piano concertos. It surfaces regularly in pop culture, appearing in a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch, the 1990 film “Misery” and in the 1971 cult classic “Harold and Maude.”

The composer lifted some of his musical ideas from Russian folk tunes, incorporating Western-style melodies. It is so challenging that Tchaikovsky’s preferred pianist, Nikolai Rubenstein, at first refused to play it.

Although the concerto is infamous for its technical difficulty, Kern says her biggest challenge is bringing out the colors in the composition.

“By now, I know all the Tchaikovsky concertos — all three,” she said. “But No. 1 is a masterpiece.”

“I think it’s kind of a winter concerto,” she said. In “the second movement, the flute sings a very lovely melody. Snow is falling in a field. It’s just beautiful; the troika comes with the trio of horses.

“His music is just getting inside of your heart. I can listen to ‘The Nutcracker’ 100 times, and it just gets more beautiful.”

The Santa Fe date marks the first time Kern has played the work on New Year’s Eve. She tries not to schedule concerts that day. In Russia, New Year’s Eve trumps Christmas in importance. Russians celebrate with parties, fireworks and concerts.

When Kern was growing up, she and her family spent the time at home eating salmon and sturgeon, among other dishes.

“In Russia, it’s a family tradition,” she said. “We always had a celebration with the family. My mother was always preparing some great warm dishes and a lot of different salads with potatoes. It’s like Thanksgiving.”

At least one recipe came from a French chef who cooked for czars, she said.

“Russians were learning a lot from the foreigners then, especially the French. We just eat and it’s a feast.”

Kern jump-started her American career in 2001 when she won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. She was the first female winner in 30 years. In 2016, she launched the Olga Kern International Piano Competition in Albuquerque.

Kern will perform with Santa Fe’s Joe Illick conducting the New Year’s Eve Orchestra. The program includes Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”).