ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Olga Rocks Rachmaninoff. Those three words were enough to fill Popejoy Hall, no easy feat. There is no more beloved guest artist with the New Mexico Philharmonic than Russian pianist Olga Kern. That the feeling is mutual is clear from her decision to hold her newly formed Olga Kern International Piano Competition here next fall. Saturday night, along with guest conductor Roberto Minczuk, she played the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2, for many the most popular work in the modern piano repertoire.
The Piano Concerto No. 2, along with his Prelude in C-sharp minor, defines Rachmaninoff distinctly and uniquely. In recent times, the third concerto has gained the reputation of being the more difficult, but there are many who would give the nod to the second. The second demands not only virtuosity but the ability to tug at the emotions without recourse to sentimentality. The work’s three movements each contain an unforgettable theme, each an expression of the darkly brooding Russian soul and each keep the pianist in near-constant motion. Kern is an ideal interpreter. She brings to the music not only the Russian spirit but a supreme technique both powerful and lyrical. Every chord, arpeggio and trill from her fingers exudes total confidence. Forceful enough to be heard over even the thickest orchestral texture, her sense of finely shaped contrasts and nimble phrasing mark her playing as expressive without ever being cloy. The poetry she brought to the adagio was that of a Chopin nocturne, as did Rachmaninoff himself in his own recording.
An encore was all but required from the audience roaring its appreciation. She returned with the Fourth Etude of Prokofiev, Op. 2. What is normally a mere finger exercise became genuine music in Kern’s hands. That’s why we love Olga.
One of the last concerts of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra featured the “Inextinguishable” symphony of Carl Nielsen, his Symphony No. 4. Then Music Director Guillermo Figueroa said it represented the will of this orchestra not to give up, and indeed the players did everything possible to survive. But financial difficulties finally took their toll on the organization. The orchestra rose, however, from the ashes to become the Philharmonic. Now a fiscally stable organization, the Philharmonic played the “Inextinguishable” once again with a clear and well-deserved feeling of pride and accomplishment.
Written as Europe was tearing itself apart for the first time in the 20th century, the work began with a furious energy matched by the explosive celebratory sonorities that dominate the final allegro, as Minczuk led a strong performance throughout. Tympanist Douglas Cardwell boldly executed the dominant part, which climaxed in a tympani duet/duel with Hovey Corbin (a member of Música Antigua de Albuquerque).
The concert opened with “Rainbow Body” by Christopher Theofanidis. The work takes verbatim a haunting medieval melody by Hildegard von Bingen, then pastes around it meaningless orchestral sound effects and noodling, climaxing in a crowd-roaring (literally) harmonic cliché at full volume. The substance of the work is all Hildegard.