Born to play Rachmaninoff: Pianist Olga Kern

by | Apr 20, 2023 | What’s Happening

Sunday, May 7, 2:30 pm, Sandler Center

She was born to play Rachmaninoff” may seem trite, a well-worn phrase used to describe an artist with an extraordinary gift for interpreting the works of that composer. But for pianist Olga Kern, her first experience with Rachmaninoff was literally in the womb.

“My mother played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto so often during her pregnancy,” she recalls. “She said I would kick when she played it. Later, when I was 15 and started to learn to play this concerto myself, I had an eerie sense that I already knew it.”
Acknowledged as one of the world’s great pianists, the first woman ever to win the coveted Gold Medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Kern comes from a musical family: both of her parents were pianists; her brother is a conductor and composer; and her great-grandmother Vera Fedorovna Pushechnikova was a mezzo-soprano. The musical connection with Rachmaninoff began with that great-grandmother: once at a performance where she was to sing Rachmaninoff songs, her accompanist became ill. Rachmaninoff, performing in the same town, heard of her plight and volunteered to take the accompanist’s place.
Kern’s grandfather kept the program from the concert, a faded reminder of that fateful brush with the great composer.
Kern began studying piano at the age of five.  Beginning at just 11 years old, she entered international competitions, winning shelves full of awards including first prize at the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition.
In 2001, Kern boarded a flight for Fort Worth, Texas where she became the first woman to win the Van Cliburn Gold. A documentary about the competition, Playing on the Edge, chronicled her fierce determi-nation and the overwhelming ovation that greeted her performance of…Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, the piece so familiar to her from before her birth.
Kern’s international career was launched: performance after performance, in solo recitals, and with great orchestras. Reviewers reached for new superlatives, writing glow-ing reviews like this one from The Boston Herald: “There were no cannons firing inside Symphony Hall, but Kern shot off plenty of rockets with her reading of Rachmaninoff’s showy Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Kern played like every note mattered, and she convinced this reviewer that she deserved every bit of her competition victory.”
Kern is now appreciated as an inter-preter of many great composers, but she holds a special place in her heart for Rachmaninoff. This year, as part of the worldwide celebration of the composer’s 150th birthday, she will share that love in a solo recital at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, presented by the Virginia Arts Festival, where she serves as the Connie & Marc Jacobson Director of Chamber Music. “When you play his music,” says Kern, “it’s so inspiring because you feel like he is there with you, to help you. It’s always been this way for me—Rachmaninoff’s music has always helped me through diffi-cult situations. The music just hits me.”
She’s not alone. Generations have loved Rachmaninoff’s music, which has ignited emotion in film soundtracks from The Seven Year Itch to Groundhog Day. Even pop music has adopted the composer’s unforget-table melodies, including the 1945 Frank Sinatra hit Full Moon and Empty Arms, which takes its theme from Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. And 1970’s pop star Eric Carmen had such a success with his ballad All by Myself, which lovingly steals the theme of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, that he penned another song based on a Rachmaninoff melody a year later, Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.
Tickets are on sale at, by phone at 757-282-2822 or in person at the Festival Box  Office, 440 Bank Street, Norfolk. Tickets are also available at, by phone at 757-385-2787 or at the Sandler Center Box Office, 201 Market Street, Virginia Beach.