World-famous pianist Olga Kern to perform sold-out concert at Bienen


Photo courtesy of Chris Lee

Olga Kern’s 2001 win marked the first time in three decades that a female pianist won a gold medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Kern will perform at Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall on Saturday.

Eunice Lee, Reporter

In 2001, Russian-American pianist Olga Kern was the first woman in over 30 years to win the historic Gold Medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Eighteen years later, she’s still an icon to classical pianists all over the world.

Kern will be making her Northwestern debut on Saturday at the Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall. Her sold-out concert is a part of the fourth annual Skyline Piano Artist Series, a lineup of piano concerts hosted by the Bienen School of Music. Jerry Tietz, Bienen’s director of concert management, described Kern’s concert as one to look forward to, particularly because she and her program are “so fabulous.”

“When I was choosing the program for this specific recital, I wanted to include both Russian and American composers because last year, I finally got my American citizenship,” Kern said. “My priority was to give a special thanks to both Russia and the United States.”

Tietz explained that the first half of her program drew from her American heritage by featuring Gershwin pieces, while the second half drew from her Russian roots with composers such as Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.

However, for pianists like Bienen doctoral student Saetbyeol Kim, Kern’s performance means more than just listening to jazzy Gershwin pieces and intense Scriabin etudes.

“There are not many well known female pianists, but she has always been one of my top choices,” Kim said. “As a woman, I value her performances because I feel like I have so much to learn from her, like her physical movements and deep emotional connections.”

Kim added that Kern demonstrates incredible strength in her performances, proving that female musicians have the same physical and emotional power onstage as male musicians do.

Tietz added that the Skyline Series was meant to “showcase the best pianists out there, which don’t have to be all white men of a certain age.”

“She’s truly one of the best pianists in the world, and there’s an entire generation of piano fans who came to know Olga and her talent, but also her authenticity and her genuineness,” he said. Tietz mentioned that Kern has additional name recognition from being the first female winner in three decades of the Cliburn, inspiring many musicians across the globe.

Kern expressed gratitude for the recognition and opportunities since her momentous Cliburn win.

“At the Cliburn competition, I just wanted to perform and share my music and knowledge with a wonderful, warm audience,” Kern said. “Now, I feel very special because I feel like I’m setting an example to a young generation of women and girls who are doing such incredible things.”

Kern expressed appreciation for the beauty of equality in music performance because when playing piano, gender is insignificant compared to the quality of the music. When she is onstage, she said, all that matters is using her hands to “make music come alive.”

Kim said she expects a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for Kern’s concert, as Kern is very “free and adventurous in her interpretations” and “always taking risks.”

Tietz said he too anticipates a very positive response from the audience, as Kern has an appeal that is both musical and personal.

“Olga has such a wonderful sense of fun and joy that she brings to the performance experience,” Tietz said. “Some performers make the mood very serious and solemn, but Olga, in addition to possessing a crazy amount of technical prowess and virtuosity, can also find the joy and the lightheartedness in what she’s bringing both to the instrument and also the audience.”

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