Olga Kern to create international piano competition in ABQ

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Welcome back, Olga! More than the title of the New Mexico Philharmonic’s season finale Classics concert, that was the overwhelming sentiment of the Popejoy Hall audience last Saturday night.

Russian pianist Olga Kern has for the last half decade been one of the most popular and beloved classical music guest artists with both the Philharmonic and the old New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

Here to perform the Piano Concerto by Grieg, she also made a surprise announcement. She is creating the Olga Kern International Piano Competition to begin next season here in Albuquerque. That means, among many things, that we can look forward to her return for years to come.

This was a particularly ambitious concert. For one thing the opening offering was “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss, the most difficult orchestral piece that had been written at that time (1888) and which remains one of the most challenging in orchestral repertory, requiring virtuosic playing from any number of instruments. No introductory bonbon that.

Guest conductor Teddy Abrams led the work with a fiery flare. His extroverted style of conducting was one of the most animated we’ve seen on the podium in years. He seemed almost ready to fly away at climactic points. And the orchestra responded in kind. Obviously Abrams doesn’t ascribe to Strauss’ infamous dictum, “Never, under any circumstances, look at the brass – it only encourages them.”

With the great players one’s own personality shines through the music, not in egocentric distortion but in original illumination. Such was the case with Kern’s Grieg Piano Concerto. The lyrical charm and romantic drama of her playing found full measure, and this once overplayed work seemed fresh and alive.

From the opening stentorian chords, Kern played with a genuine warmth, a mellow tone and a flexible rubato, with admirable support from Abrams and the orchestra. While there is plenty of opportunity for virtuosity, remarkably little is not supported by thematic content, emphasizing Grieg’s highly characteristic melodies. The Adagio featured a lovely horn solo (Peter Erb) in counterpoint with Kern’s glistening yet eloquent lyricism.

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Kern, in her strikingly elegant black and red gown, rewarded the boisterous applause from a gratefully standing audience with an encore, as she usually does, this time Rachmaninoff’s Moments Musicaux, No. 4 in E minor.

With Debussy, the old sonata forms, which had been long on the verge of collapse, died unceremoniously. La mer (The Sea) builds its form from the composer’s visions of an ocean, sometimes tempestuous, sometimes calm, sometimes even playful, but ever mysterious.

Debussy, unlike few others, incredibly few others, could actually write memorable music without clear melodies. (In lesser hands the technique turns either to movie music-wallpaper or formless absurdity in the concert hall.) The sound is rather a great wash of colors much like a Turner seascape – not without natural reference yet teetering on total abstraction.

Abrams led the ensemble skillfully with careful attention to dynamic balance through the kaleidoscope of ever-changing mood and ambience arising from Debussy’s endless fascination with the anima of the sea.

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