From Beethoven to Rachmaninoff to Billy Joel: An Interview with Superstar Pianist Olga Kern

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If you believe that a good way to judge music is on whether it sounds good and moves you, then you have a friend in international concert pianist Olga Kern. The Russian-bred, New York-based classical music superstar is unabashed in support of the highly charged Romantic music of her heroes Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Asked why some of the classical intelligentsia look down on the way Rachmaninoff kept writing a 19th century style of big wellsprings of music right up through the 1930s, she doesn’t hesitate: “I think they’re just afraid of their emotions.”

Olga Kern. Photo by Tatiana Borodina.
Olga Kern. Photo by Tatiana Borodina.

Well not her and her audiences! Olga says her technique, which blends astonishing virtuosity with a broad tonal palette, is the inheritance of a line of Russian, Slavic and German teacher-student relationships that she can trace back to Beethoven. From there she ranges over the musical landscape, forging alliances with everyone from reigning American soprano Renee Fleming to her new crossover rock/classical pal Billy Joel, and drawing on a Russian heritage that gives her access to piano exercises that no one in America has seen before and lets her know which Rachmaninoff pieces are now being employed by, I kid you not, Russian rappers.

Following on her season-opening appearance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, I met up with Olga last week in New York, on the day before one of her solo recitals, at Café Fiorello right across Broadway from Lincoln Center. Here are excerpts of our wide-ranging conversation:

David: Olga, when I hear you play, no matter how fast it is, it’s so clear – I hear the air between the notes. Can you verbalize how you make that happen?

Olga: I had the most incredible teacher in Central Music School in Moscow. His name was Evgeny Timakin. He was the teacher of Mikhail Pletnev and Ivo Pogorelich. If you were to listen to them and listen to me, you would understand that we have absolutely the same thing in common. It’s the technique – how we are making the exact sound that you are saying.

I was his last student because he was old. There was always a full class of other teachers sitting there every time I was there. He had lessons with students 2 to 3 times a week. Not like now. But once a week is not enough. If necessary, if I had a competition, it was 4 or 5 times a week! For some of those I went to his house, a tiny little apartment in central Moscow.

I was there every time in front of his classroom with really important teachers from all over Russia – the Soviet Union at that time. I was playing in a full auditorium and I needed to be prepared. But if I was not prepared it was okay because every lesson he gave a new exercise just from his hands – not out of a book, never repeating. They showed all the inner voices. There were two pianos, he would play an exercise, then I would play it on the other piano.

When I talk to some of the piano teachers at the Manhattan School of Music, they say, “Oh my God, we know [Timakin] because there are a lot of printed exercises from him.” They had a lot of his books already, but I gave them some more. In those everything is in Russian but it doesn’t matter because there’s a lot of music in it. On each Chopin etude he had his own exercise!

You also have a wonderful way of balancing the weight of your arms, wrists and hands to give great freedom to the fingers.

Yes, this was always very important to him [Timakin]. He always said that his school goes back to Beethoven. This is how he described it – from Beethoven to Czerny, Czerny to Liszt, Liszt to Alexander Siloti, Alexander Siloti to Konstantin Igumnov, who was his [Timakin’s] teacher, and I am a student of all of this incredible tradition! So it’s a chain from a really great school.

My son who’s 16 and senior at Juilliard pre-college, he’s playing great, but I’m always telling him you always listen to every note even if it’s super-fast. Until the end of the passage, you need to listen to every note. Every note is a treasure. He [Timakin] talked about the balance and the weight, the body – if you will see a perfect example of a student was Mikhail Pletnev, because he was always sitting straight, there was no movement. He was always saying, you don’t need to do it, it’s not helping music!

Your body is like a tree. Where are you taking your life from? From the roots, from the legs, your body is your mechanism how you are making the sound. So the life goes through the tree, through the branches, and the leaves are moving, nothing else.

What a great image for a pianist! Have you played Bach?

Of course. I don’t perform Bach much, but I was talking with my manager, I would love to do it now. You know, Bach prelude and fugues are the most important thing. For my teacher, the polyphony [multiple simultaneous melodies] and the inner voices, this is what is helping me play Rachmaninoff music now. You can’t play Rachmaninoff music without listening to the polyphony, because he has so much inside. It’s not just one melody. Just take any prelude of Rachmaninoff – there is always so much inside, other melodies. We need to hear everything.

Plus what’s important about Bach, what Bach is teaching, is that what one hand is doing is totally different than the other and this is the coordination of your movements of both hands and 10 fingers. So five fingers are doing one thing and the other is doing totally different. So one of the things my teacher did, he took one Chopin etude in one hand, the Revolutionary Etude, Opus 10, No. 12 in that one hand, and then here was Opus 10, No. 2 in the other hand, and then you need to do it together.

That sounds impossible.

You need to do it! It’s complete coordination of two hands which are doing totally different things. Also he did one hand staccato and one hand legato, which is not easy when you are little. I mean now when I practice, for me it’s no problem, but I see with a lot of pianists it’s not easy to do both things perfectly. Bach is one of the best examples of this because there are so many melodies inside, so many voices. You can’t play piano without knowing Bach. 

You have a beautiful recording of Chopin’s Third Sonata in B minor. What did you do to make that piece sound so good on something that’s been recorded so many times?

Actually for both sonatas [No. 2 and No. 3 on the same CD] I have really a personal approach. The second sonata I’ve played for many years since my student times at the Conservatory. And that piece was influenced a lot by Rachmaninoff’s recording of it, which is very Rachmaninoff, not Chopin at all. But I loved it so much that I understood that I must play it. When you’re a student you’re not a fan of some big tragic funeral march, right? [Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 is famous for originating the funeral march that has since become something of a cliché.] But he played it the way on the recording that understood that I must play it. I learned it the first or second year as a Moscow Conservatory student. And this piece went with me through many different times, not necessarily so good times. I can say I was living with it for many years.

Then with No. 3, well you know every time I go to Warsaw I always go to the church where Chopin’s heart is buried. [The second half of Chopin’s life he lived and then died in France, but he literally directed that his heart be removed and re-“buried” in his native Poland.] The first time I came to play with the Warsaw orchestra it was our first tour in Austria and Germany, and I was rehearsing in Warsaw with them. It was right after the Cliburn competition [Olga won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001], and the Warsaw orchestra invited me for a tour, starting a great cooperation between us for many years. But the first time I wanted to come and see that church where Chopin’s heart is. I bought some flowers and I came there, and I must say it’s a very special place.

Being an artist, being a musician, I’m very sensitive about energy which comes from different places, and if it’s an important place like this, many other places like Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin which is not far from Moscow, and Rachmaninoff’s house not far from St. Petersburg, all these places give some special vibe, some special energy, I feel it. Here I was sitting next to this column in the church because this heart is inside of a wall. And I was just kind of praying, I was talking to him [Chopin] and praying, and saying I really want to play your Sonata No. 3, can you please give me ideas for it the next couple of months, if you can, please?

I love this piece, it’s such a masterpiece. And it went so easy for me, how I learned it. It was like I had played this piece many years, which I hadn’t. Many times afterwards if I needed to learn something else I would go to Warsaw and ask [Chopin] again! I know it sounds strange but I feel like he was present at this time, he was next to me, behind my shoulders, I felt that.

I talked about this kind of thing, the spirit of great people with Van Cliburn when he was alive. I said, “Don’t think I’m crazy, what do you think?” and he said, “Oh no, I completely understand you.” He told me such great stories, he was always saying Rachmaninoff was always with him. And I believed this, because when I debuted at Carnegie Hall, when I went onstage my manager was kind of nervous because she didn’t know how I would be feeling. But I was so comfortable there, when I went onstage I felt like, “This is my room, and I don’t want to leave this stage!”

Because of the air, the Russian music that’s been performed there, something else?

The air, the acoustics, the Russian music, all these incredible musicians who’ve played there, their energy is still there and it’s helping you to perform better. I feel energy even from the public every time I go on stage. Each time I know exactly how it is. Is it a good energy? Is it energy I need to work on a little a bit so they will really be my audience in terms that they would share with me? Because I always share. It’s not necessarily that I want them to like me, no. I want them to understand what I’m doing with this particular piece. It’s like energy going round and round, from me to them, from them to me, and back and forth, those performances are so electrifying. 

American audiences know Rachmaninoff’s big piano concertos, but do they know his songs, or are those always new to them?

I think a lot of them are new for them, I must say.

You’ve been Renee Fleming’s pianist, and she’s performed these songs. Were they new for Renee Fleming? Did you introduce her to those?

No, for [classical] singers, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky songs are a very important part of their education. But I must say that when I performed with Kathleen Battle, I introduced her to some of the songs. Not because she didn’t know about them, but because she thought it wasn’t for her voice. Her voice is very light and airy and she was thinking Rachmaninoff is more for a dramatic soprano.

But I showed her, for example, “Lilacs.” I said, “Kathy, it will be perfect,” and it was perfect for her. And there are many songs which you can actually adapt to different type of voices. With Renee Fleming, she has a perfect voice for Rachmaninoff. I would love for her to do some Tchaikovsky songs, too.

Did Renee introduce you to some other songs on your tour with her earlier this year?

I must say that I never did Strauss [German composer Richard Strauss, not Johann Strauss Jr., the “Waltz King”] before with any of the singers. I’m not really working with many singers, I particularly work only with a couple of singers.

A lot of concert pianists don’t work with any singers.

I know. But I love opera and I love voice and I love songs in particular. When I was a student in the [Moscow] conservatory, I worked with a lot of great, young singers at that time. From that time I knew Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Anna Netrebko, all of those great stars now, at that time they were just starting, it was just so incredible that time.

I had just won the first international Rachmaninoff competition in Moscow, I was 17, and at that time the Rachmaninoff Society in Moscow was directed by the greatest soprano, Irina Arkhipova. Not so many people know her in America, but if you will hear her Rachmaninoff songs, you will understand what I’m talking about. I think about the timbre of Olga Borodina, she’s a mezzo-soprano. Anna Netrebko also has a specific timbre that came from Arkhipova, because Arkhipova had this incredible reach – sometimes dark but very warm tone of the voice.

Because she was the director of the Rachmaninoff Society, Irina Arkhipova took me under her wings as a young pianist, and I toured with many of the now-great Russian singers. We toured everywhere, in Finland, in Russia, a lot of places in Europe. So this is how I found out about voice, how important it is for pianists, in particular to know the phrasing, to know how to breathe. Because piano is a percussion instrument, and you really need to sing on the piano, and to be able to sing you need to know the different timbres, the different tones of the voice. Van Cliburn was always telling me this too. He loved opera – he was a big donor of the Met actually.

What about Russian opera here in the United States?

I was at the first performance of Eugene Onegin at the Met [in 2007] with Dmitri and Renee, and [star Russian conductor Valery] Gergiev was conducting. I grew up with Eugene Onegin, I know it by heart, I can play it on the piano. Tchaikovsky operas and ballets were a very important part of my education, my mom absolutely loves Tchaikovsky music.

And for me it was such a surprise that in New York, with American people in the orchestra – of course there a lot of Russians, a lot of Asians in that orchestra, but still – that orchestra sounded exactly how I would think Tchaikovsky would want, and how the singers were singing. Renee was the perfect Tatyana [the female lead]. Her pronunciation, it was like she learned it as a little girl. I said to her, “Renee, I know a lot of Russian singers, and I know a lot of productions of this, but that was incredible, incredible, incredible!”

So you’re not taking credit for teaching Renee Fleming anything about Russian. She just has it?

She just has it! She’s like, “Oh no please, I don’t know, I don’t know, but I have such great people with me, like Dima [Dmitri’s nickname], I mean he’s a great baritone.” But what she did with Tatyana! Unforgettable.

And yet when you perform something like the Rachmaninoff song “Spring Waters” with Renee Fleming, I mean the piano is very prominent in that. So do you talk about that or does the collaboration come naturally?

It just comes naturally, because she knows that I can do it. Actually in a piece like this, I think I’m actually more kind of giving the base, I’m actually moving her a lot, I think. In some songs it’s definitely her, but in some songs – it’s of course mutual, you need to do it together, but in some pieces because there’s such a big piano part, of course you listen to her rubato and then you need to be there, but in some parts when it’s like all the waves of those spring waters, it’s all piano, and it needs to be the right pianist for these kinds of songs.

Living in America, has it gone the other way? Have American performers introduced you to new music?

Oh yes! Kathleen Battle introduced me to spirituals which I never did before, and that really gave me much more understanding of American music, you know, the freedom. Actually Rachmaninoff lived here a long time [Rachmaninoff fled Russia after the 1917 revolution] and he was influenced by Gershwin a lot.

Rachmaninoff was at the first concert of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, right?

Exactly. And you can hear that influence in his Rhapsody [Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which Olga performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra].

Have you performed these spirituals with Kathleen Battle?

Yes and that was a very special, unique experience. We did two concerts, one of them at Carnegie Hall. But she was always doing it differently, because there is so much freedom in them.

How else do you know how to make the piano sing?

When I’m playing a melody, it’s never metallic, never harsh. I never break the piano even if I’m playing as loud as possible! This is what I was saying also about the body weight – yes how to make a huge sound, big but not harsh, but beautiful and warm. Russians always say that [legendary violinist] David Oistrakh had “meat in the sound.” Because meat is so full, when you eat meat you are so full, it needs to be full, it needs to be round, it’s the blood. Not blood like breaking your fingers, I’m talking about how juicy and nice and full it needs to be.

The technique of the pedal is also very important. Because piano has the strings and it’s a percussion instrument, pedal is a very important part of how to prolong the sound, because sound is disappearing if you don’t know how to correctly use the pedal. And sometimes it’s just too much of the sound when you are just pushing it too much, and also not just the right pedal, I’m talking about sostenuto pedal, the middle pedal, I’m talking about the left pedal, everything needs to be in balance.

My teacher was always a little bit afraid of using too much pedal, so sometimes when I play, you can hear a drier version of that or this composition, and I like that. Because I think that if you put too much pedal the color of the piece will disappear. But in some music like Chopin music you can’t not know how to use the pedal. I’m always saying to the American students in my master class, you know they are rarely using the left pedal, rarely! I am like, how is it possible? You will change the tone immediately by just pushing the left pedal.

Once when I played with Renee Fleming, she asked me to do [the piano solo version of] “Lilacs” between her songs. So she did two Rachmaninoff songs and then I did “Lilacs,” and then we did some other Rachmaninoff songs. She told me I’m just like a singer with this piece, and I told her it’s all about the pedal and just the right balance of pushing the keys and listening to each note.

Why in your judgment was Sergei Rachmaninoff looked down on for years after his death, and then that changed back?

I know, isn’t it strange? Actually in many places still, it’s not easy to convince people to listen to Rachmaninoff’s music.

Why do you think that is?

I think they’re just afraid of their emotions.

Interesting.

I feel that way because his music gives you so many emotions. Yesterday I had a special event. There’s a magazine called New York Moves which talks about local celebrities, and they were celebrating the power of women [at an event called Power Women 2015]. They were giving special prizes for asserting the incredible power of women all over New York, and I was performing for these women. It was a short recital, I chose only Russian music, and these women – there were some rock stars, some actors who knew [of this music] – but there were also cooks, engineers, you know, women who never even necessarily hear classical music.

After I played Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, they were all saying how moved they were emotionally. That is the most important thing I think in Rachmaninoff’s music, that it’s moving all of us. When I listen to his Symphony No. 2, the third movement [the theme of which became the melody for Eric Carmen’s 1976 hit “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”] I cry every time and it’s not because I just love it, it’s because it’s moving me so much I can’t stop.

Are you bothered by the fact or do you like the fact that this music has been stolen for popular music? 

I think it’s great, I think it’s fantastic!

I think it’s fantastic too, but a lot of people in music, you know, say, “Oh that stupid song from the 70s,” or sneer at what Frank Sinatra and other singers did with the Concerto No. 2 [whose third movement was adapted into the 1940s standard “Full Moon and Empty Arms”]. But isn’t that a good thing?

I think it’s a great thing, even now. You know, one of these crazy Russian rappers uses Rachmaninoff. I mean it’s crazy, but why not? I think rap and the Russian language don’t go very well together, but it doesn’t matter, there’s a lot of rap in Russia, and he took the G minor prelude of Rachmaninoff and took it and then he’s like [she imitates the palaver of rap].

Why not? It works.

The idea is amazing. And I must tell you how I was introduced to this. I had no idea about this rapper and this song. But I met this one German man, they had a Russian friend their age – you know, 14 or 15 years old – who introduced them to this, and they didn’t know that it’s Rachmaninoff’s music at all. I actually said, “Do you know this is actually Rachmaninoff’s preludes?” They were so excited.

I think it’s great because when I talk about Rachmaninoff’s second concerto or his Paganini Rhapsody [whose 18th variation has been used in countless movies and figure skating routines], and I need to tell people that you know, that was used in this Hollywood movie and then they actually say, “Oh yes, Celine Dion! I didn’t know and now I would love to hear the whole concerto.” [Celine Dion’s cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” is from the second movement of the Concerto No. 2.] How great is that?

People all over the world are studying Western classical music. As a parent of a teenager, are you concerned about what it’s like to try to raise performing artists in the United States with all the media here and all the distractions of American culture?

Oh yes! It’s so hard. You know, he is an Americanized kid, he’s 16 years old, he’s lived here since he was 9. He just won first prize in the Rosalyn Tureck Bach Competition here in New York, so he’s very proud of that because he’s a New Yorker and he got the prize here in New York. At least he and his friends, they’re great and they have a lot of things in common because it’s music, you know, and it’s less distraction than not being in music, let’s put it that way.

But he loves sports, he loves golf, he’s even been in golf competitions when he has time because he fell in love with golf after we went to the Chelsea pier where they had a great golf school for the kids. So he’s doing it when he has time. But why do you need to have sport in the school every day, when you can use this time to practice piano?

Kids are studying and concentrating in music everywhere, including the Czech Republic, Korea, China …

And in Russia the same. Everything went from Russia actually to China, because they had all Russian teachers who came to the Chinese schools. They all know they need to practice five hours a day at least, every day. So at least then you will have a little progress since you are little, the same with ballet, the same with any sport, you need to do it! You need to do it for your muscles, you need to do it for your hands, you need to do it for your head, you must do it.

Olga Kern. Photo by Fernando Baez.
Olga Kern. Photo by Fernando Baez.

Here if they practice half an hour a day, it’s like – and the schools are asking me, “Miss Kern, do you think it’s enough?” I say, “No, it’s not enough, I’m sorry! How can you do this? It’s impossible!” Plus of course the distraction of computers and all the things in the media which are completely crazy.

You know, I was so lucky that we didn’t even have a TV at that time. Because in the communist time, we didn’t even have a telephone in the building where we lived. So we were completely not distracted. If I wanted to, I went outside and played with my friends outside. But at least I was breathing normal air, you know? At least there was some air. Now it’s all pollution but at that time it was a little bit better because we didn’t have a lot of cars at that time in Moscow. Now with the traffic it’s not normal, it’s even worse than New York.

But at least I had a normal childhood – even though it was a communist time, we didn’t have any food, nothing, but I still remember it as a very happy childhood. Probably my parents were crazy because they were trying to find food here and there and there, and how crazy they were working just to get this. But for me it was fine. Nowadays, I can see, my son, he came from Moscow, now he’s at the computer, then he needs to practice, he doesn’t even have time to go outside. Only if he wants to play golf! Now because he’s a senior he has a million things to do in school. It’s like a million things they have right now.

Well you’ve traveled around the United States, you see how it is.

Thank God my mom is here. She loves to cook, so he’s eating normal food. Actually he’s very unhappy with that, because he’s like, I’m going with my friends to eat hamburgers. It’s like, okay, sometimes you can do that, but not every day! But because he’s in a family of musicians, he sees what I’m doing and what my habits are, how I’m practicing. And I also have a million things to do. I have my own competition coming up [the first Olga Kern International Piano Competition in Albuquerque in fall 2016], I have a foundation, I need to coordinate things, I have my apartment, I have my mom here, my father is in Moscow. Everything is on me.

Well it’s been on you for 15, 20 years.

I’m very happy about it, that I’m able to do it.

You know Olga, some years ago I was sitting in the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, it’s a basketball arena, it was a Billy Joel concert … 

I was just at a Billy Joel concert like half a year ago! 

… and you know how he noodles around among the various pianos set up on stage, while the audience applause was dying down from one song to the next, I thought I was the only person in the building who noticed that he was doing licks from Rachmaninoff. But now it’s well known that he does it and he’s deepened his involvement in your kind of music.

You know that he’s composing classical music.

You bet. He’s now an official Steinway Artist, like you. Tell me about meeting him and about your experience at his concert.

You know I’m just so happy that I am a Steinway Artist. Because that piano makes a huge difference when I play it. Well this is how I met him, I was at that Steinway Hall which doesn’t exist anymore on 57th Street. They were just starting that new project, the Spirio piano, you are just playing and then it’s played back to you which is absolutely amazing, I mean I’m talking about exact playback, with the pedal, with the pianissimo, the fortissimo, all the tone you are making. So of course I was very excited about this project. I was recording a few pieces, and then Billy Joel came while I was recording. And then the piano played back his improvisation, it was really great.

We talked and then he said, “You know we have a concert tonight at Madison Square Garden” because he’s artist in residence, every month he’s playing there. I said, “God I would love to come,” but that night my son was playing chamber music at Juilliard, so I really couldn’t do it, and I asked when is the next concert. He said in 2 weeks, so this is how I was invited, I got the VIP tickets. That was very special because then I went with my son who never heard any Billy Joel songs …

Well he goes back a few decades, maybe that’s part of the reason …

… and I wanted my son to hear that music, because I grew up on these songs. Even in Russia at that time you could find some of them. I was very excited to hear him live, some songs which I knew, some songs I had never heard. But it was incredible, the energy coming from him.

But the most interesting thing was this. Because I usually don’t go to pop concerts, so we didn’t know how it works. The ticket said 7:30, so we’re there at 7:30. But the concert actually started at 9 because at 8 there was some warm-up [act]. So we were there at 7:30, it was completely empty. We’re sitting in the VIP section which is like very close to the stage, the seats were incredible. And then suddenly a huge screen appears and they’re showing a commentary, and the commentary starts with the Tchaikovsky concerto, and Van Cliburn is playing – in the Moscow Conservatory! And I was like, is this real? Are we in the Billy Joel concert or is it a classical concert, what’s going on?

So then Billy Joel starts talking about his appearance in Russia for the first time. And why he really wanted to go to Russia – because he had heard Van Cliburn, he loved Van Cliburn, when Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition [in 1958], it became his dream to come to Russia and perform there.

Olga Kern playing with the Detroit Symphony. Photo courtesy of Olga's website.
Olga Kern playing with the Detroit Symphony. Photo courtesy of Olga’s website.

So then he started about how the Russian audience was incredibly warm and happy and they were showing footage from his concert and how people were throwing military hats to him and giving gifts to him, and he felt so welcome there. Oh my God how Billy Joel talks about classical music, and I learned he had a classical music education, that was incredible for me. I was so happy we came early so we saw that. Then I heard that he’s composing classical music, and he is looking for some pianists to perform it. I would love to do it, it was just great.

And I must say that after the concert, my son went back home and immediately went on the Internet and downloaded all of Billy Joel’s songs!

Then he’s catching up to you on popular music, too! Thank you, Olga!

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Olga Kern’s international concert schedule for the first half of 2016, including U.S. concerts in New York, Vermont, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Kansas, Oregon and Hawaii, is available here. Her complete discogrophy, including links to Amazon, iTunes and Spotify, is here.