Olga Kern at the Winspear: A Woman and Her Piano is Enough, but Not This Time

Categories: Music Notes

Kern.jpg
2001 Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Olga Kern
Last week, Russian pianist Olga Kern barreled through some predictably showy repertoire on stage at the Winspear Opera House. In a hall designed for enormous opera productions, it takes a lot of charisma and sound from a lone pianist to fill such a big space. But with the help of some over-the-top gowns and impressive virtuosity, Kern held her own.

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Solo piano recitals are under-represented in Dallas. Due in part to the Cliburn Concert series, Fort Worth's Bass Hall snags most of the big-name pianists that come through the area. While far from a packed house, the size of the audience inside the Winspear Thursday proved that there is demand for more concerts featuring solo pianists on this side of the Trinity.

The audience was particularly impressive given that Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed a hugely popular concert featuring Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at the same time right next door.

North Texans may have been drawn to this concert in part because Kern is a familiar name in the region. In 2001, the young, strikingly beautiful blonde made a big splash in Fort Worth when she won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Her performance of Rachmaninoff's notoriously difficult 3rd piano concerto in that competition proved her serious chops.

On Thursday, Kern's performance at the Winspear stuck to pretty mainstream classical fair, with works by Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. This is blockbuster classical music: technically showy, melodically pleasing, and familiar to a broad swath of the audience. In the hands of a great artist, such works can feel vibrant and fresh. Unfortunately, while Kern's technical mastery of the repertoire is undeniable, her interpretation Thursday night felt uninspired.

The first half of Kern's recital was dominated by Robert Schumann's romantic masterpiece, Carnaval. This piece is made up of 21 short pieces played without pause. Each piece represents a character at a masked ball, some figments of Schumann's imagination and others real people in his life (i.e. Chopin and Schumann's wife, Clara). The mood of these pieces bounces back and forth between intimate and bombastic. During quieter moments, Kern played with touching expression and lovely voicing. But as soon as the tempo and volume picked up, she seemed to kick into autopilot, abandoning any hint of expression. Audience members unfamiliar with the work would have benefited from some program notes.

Unsurprisingly, the acoustics in the Winspear were less than ideal for a solo piano recital. The enormous curtain behind the piano acted like a towel, soaking up the instrument's resonance. This could have been helped with the simple addition of partitions behind the pianist. From the back of the room, the sound was okay but muddied. With the City Performance Hall just across the street, I found myself longing for that space's acoustic clarity.

Kern won over her audience, who demanded multiple encores at the end of the evening. She was visually stunning on stage, sporting not one but two formal gowns. Sadly the rest of the artistry disappointed, something no number of wardrobe changes could overcome.


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