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Olga Kern to join Philharmonic for Tchaikovsky

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Pianist Olga Kern will return to Albuquerque on Saturday to perform the music of a family friend.

The namesake of the Albuquerque-based International Olga Kern Piano Competition will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor with the New Mexico Philharmonic.

Kern’s great-great grandmother was also a pianist and a friend of the great Romantic composer. So close that the family donated his letters and photographs to the Tchaikovsky Museum in Moscow.

Kern began practicing the notoriously difficult concerto with the booming opening octaves when she was 14.

“When I was even younger, I started to try to practice the octaves,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. “That helped me. When I really started learning the piece, I was so comfortable.

“It’s always difficult. I always find so much more details in the music.”

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

“Because it was from Russian culture at that time, it was written in such a grand way,” Kern said. “It was different from everything that came before. The piano almost starts the concert at the beginning, and this was so unusual at the time. Everything happened after that concerto in Russian music, especially in Rachmaninoff’s music. It was very difficult to perform; it was very challenging, so it took the piano to another level, too.”

The composer lifted some of his musical ideas from Russian folk music; he also used Western-style melodies.

The concerto’s second movement glistens with the sparkle of snow across the Russian landscape, Kern said.

“There are horses running through the fields; this is how I see it,” she said. “Tchaikovsky had incredible colors when he was writing about winter – If we think of ‘The Nutcracker’ – we can see that winter. It’s easy to imagine when that music is playing. At the end of the first movement, it almost feels like little bells in the high register.

“I always like to practice it, just me and the score. And I always find something new.”

The New Mexico Philharmonic will open the program with “Mothership” by contemporary American composer Mason Bates. The opening imagines the orchestra as a mother ship “docked” by several visiting soloists.

New Mexico Philharmonic music director finalist Fawzi Haimor will conduct.