Portland Piano International opened its 2018-19 season on the weekend of October 6 and 7 with recitals by Russian-American pianist Olga Kern. She gained attention in 2001 during her historic Gold Medal win that year at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas; she was the first woman to do so in more than thirty years. Her recitals in Portland presented music from the 18th to the 20th centuries, from Domenico Scarlatti to George Gershwin, and was very well-received by the audiences on both days.
Prior to each recital, Bill Crane, Portland Piano International’s new Director of Audience Engagement, presented a pre-concert talk. This year the location for these talks moved to the Lincoln Hall stage, which means it was easy to step in, find your seat, and gain some insight into the music and styles that were to come. In the future, get there early to hear the brilliant musical observations and analysis from Bill Crane.
Saturday’s Recital – Scarlatti to Gershwin + the Russians
The two recitals had identical second halves but mostly different first halves. On Saturday, Olga started off the program with three of Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas — K. 24, K. 9, and K159. Originally written for the harpsichord, they translate brilliantly to the piano; pianists have eagerly incorporated these baroque gems into their repertoire. Olga arranged the three sonatas in a fast-slow-fast order, and on a personal note, I was happy to hear the second and third sonatas in particular because I’ve played them myself on the harpsichord. She was able to pull a drier sound from the instrument so that the articulation — directed primarily from the fingers rather than the hand and wrist — could be heard clearly. Her implementation of 19th century trills, along with the judicious use of pedal, gave the pieces a more modern feel, too. These pieces are definitely a vehicle for virtuosity, which she had in spades.
Next up was one of Beethoven’s most beloved piano sonatas, the Waldstein (Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 53, No. 21). Olga managed to pull a different sound out of the piano for this classical-era hit, a sound reminiscent of a fortepiano. The first movement had a wonderful sense of flow and satisfying moments of tension and release. I especially loved the chorale section that gave our ears a break and a sense of calm in contrast to the surrounding rush of sound. The second movement, majestic at times, incorporated a real mix of textures; the third movement was a virtuosic recitation of big chords, arpeggios, glissandos, and enticing harmonies. The audience loved it and gave her a long period of applause.
To end the first half — on both days — Olga performed three short preludes and the Earl Wild arrangement of "Fascinating Rhythm" from Seven Virtuoso Etudes, all by George Gershwin. It was a thrill to hear the familiar tunes and exuberant vibe coming off the piano. Her timing and expression during these preludes were a delight. And “Fascinating Rhythm” was a great choice for the end of this half — waves of sound, wonderful dissonances, and distinctive rhythms. This set was a huge crowd pleaser, yielding applause, cheers, and a standing ovation from some in the audience.
During intermission on both days, Executive Director Ellen Bergstone Wasil and Board Chair Maryellen McCulloch made an exciting announcement that Marc-André Hamelin will be curating the 2019-2020 season, much to the delight of the audience, who clapped and cheered. We look forward to sharing more details about the programming in 2019.
Sunday’s Recital – Beethoven, Schumann, Gershwin + the Russians
On Sunday prior to the Gershwin set we heard two pieces not duplicated from Saturday: Beethoven’s 10 Variations on a Theme by Salieri, and the grand Carnaval, Op. 9 by Robert Schumann. The Beethoven was beautifully played with a Classical style aesthetic — a little drier sound from the piano bringing it closer in sound to that of a fortepiano. It allowed her variety articulations to come through, especially at the opening, which sounded light like filigree. I enjoyed the dissonances throughout, many of them ornamental. Her ability to navigate the keyboard so effortlessly was impressive. This was a really fun way to start a program.
Schumann’s wonderful Carnaval, comprised of 21 “Little Scenes,” was so well-played and engrossing, it hardly felt like 30 minutes had gone by. From the triumphant opening to its majestic closing, it was such a joy to hear Olga’s interpretation of these character pieces. You could see how much she was enjoying herself by the looks that would travel across her face during her performance. I also liked how it really showed her range as a player, from tender to technical. The audience loved it too, providing a vocal and loud response.
The second half of the program on both days was music by all Russian composers — Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and Balakirev. Olga played brilliantly both days, and she sounded very much at home in this sound world, especially within the Rachmaninov set. She played three of his short pieces, Moments Musicaux, Op. 16, No. 4 in E minor; 7 Morceaux de salon, Op. 10, No. 3 "Barcarolle"; and Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 4 "Polichinelle." Among the waves of sound so prevalent in late 19th century Romantic music, Olga treated us to a variety of harmonies and textures — from energetically jumping around the keyboard to calmer pastoral moments in “Polichinelle,” to a hint of influence from the Impressionists during the Moments Musicaux. These short but virtuosic pieces were well-received by the audience; it was clear from their applause that they were impressed.
Following this was a set of two etudes by Scriabin — No. 4 and No. 5, Op. 42. The first piece was a sweet nugget of soft playing, a nice aural break that showed a different side of Olga’s playing. In some ways, this kind of piece requires more control than the fast and technically demanding pieces. The second etude was much more active, bringing back that rhapsodic wall of sound to a completely enraptured audience.
Balakirev’s Islamey started out with a more modern sound than I expected from a piece from the mid-19th century; there was lots of articulation and virtuosity but not the endless wave of sound. It was fun to watch her use the entire span of the keyboard during this piece, showcasing the variety and virtuosity present in the writing (Balakirev was himself a piano virtuoso); and the glissando toward the end was pretty fantastic. It was a really fun way to end the recital and Olga received cheers and a standing ovation for her artistry and hard work.
Olga also chose to play multiple encores after each recital. On Saturday she gifted us three encores: a Prokofiev etude; Spinning Wheel by Charles Lisberg (reportedly a favorite piece of music of her son’s); and Moszkowski’s Etincelles (Sparks); On Sunday she played four encores: a Russian Dance by Mussorgsky; a reprise of the Lisberg piece; the prelude, Fireworks by Debussy, and Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov. The audience seemed a little surprised to hear so many encores (usually the artist plays one), and they loved it.
We are so grateful for Olga Kern for sharing her beautiful artistry, technique and musicality to our Portland Piano International SOLO audience. We look forward to hearing her again the next time she’s in town.