Concerto marathon at Chautauqua

Pianist Olga Kern to play a bold series of Rachmaninoff pieces

Pianist Olga Kern
Photo by David Bazemore

Michael Christie is really up for this weekend’s concerts at the Colorado Music Festival (CMF).

“I think it’s going to be one of the most spectacular feats of artistry and stamina I’ll ever see,” he says.

And as CMF music director and conductor of the concerts, he should know. What he is talking about are performances by Russian pianist Olga Kern with the Festival Orchestra, playing all four of Rachmaninoff ’s piano concertos, plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Those are five major works, by one of the greatest piano virtuosos in history, all of them monumentally challenging, physically and emotionally. And Kern will perform them in just two concerts, on Friday, July 19, and Sunday, July 21 (

For lovers of the Romantic piano and high-risk virtuosity, a performance of just one Rachmaninoff concerto is a treat. To have all four of them and the Rhapsody in just two concerts is astonishing.

“You will not hear this anywhere else in the world,” Christie says. “And I can guarantee Olga is the only one who can do something like this.”

Lest you think that Christie is an evil genius for asking Kern to play all five works in only two concerts, you should know it was her idea. She had played the concertos over two weeks with Christie and the Phoenix Symphony last year. During that run, he asked if she would be willing to play them as part of this year’s “Russian Masters” mini-festival at CMF.

“I said it would probably mean doing them all in one week, one concerto per program,” Christie says. “She looked at me and said, ‘Well actually, the easiest thing for me to do would be just to [do them all together].’ She said it’s really physically harder to rev up and then warm down, rev up and warm down, rather than just to make a couple of massive concerted efforts. You just go for it while the adrenaline’s pumping and everything’s good.”

And it’s not like Kern objects to playing more Rachmaninoff. Kern’s travel schedule prevented local interviews, but in a statement prepared for CMF, she writes, “I am so happy that I will be back in Colorado and perform all Rachmaninoff concertos. I don’t perform this cycle very often; it’s a very special event for me. It takes so much from me, emotionally and physically, but at the same time it makes me the happiest person in this world. I love Rachmaninoff ’s music.”

That love is part of Kern’s heritage. Descended from a family of Russian musicians, she studied piano at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and won the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition at the age of 17. Later she also won the Van Cliburn Competition in Texas, an event founded on Cliburn’s own success with Russian music at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Kern likes to recall some family history: “My family has a very special connection with Rachmaninoff,” she explains in her statement. “My great-grandmother was a singer. One time when she was on tour in Russia, she was singing Rachmaninoff songs and her accompanist got sick and she didn’t know what to do because these songs are very difficult for pianists.

“Rachmaninoff was touring the same time and it just happened that he was at the same exact place! He told my great-grandmother that he could accompany her with pleasure, and they performed together. My family still has the program from that concert. It’s a treasure, priceless for sure!”

Christie has no doubt that the Russian heritage plays a role in Kern’s performances. “Russian pianists bring certain sounds and weight out of the instrument when it comes to these pieces. There’s a bit more eagerness to be on the edges, so the fast music has a sparkle and virtuosic feel to it. And the slow music, she doesn’t linger in it, but there’s something just extremely expressive and melancholic.”

Of the four concertos, Christie says he is particularly interested in the less frequently played First and Fourth, “because that’s territory that most people don’t know. When people experience that progression, I think they’re going to be amazed. You really get the sense of going from a very Tchaikovsky-esque First Concerto, to kind of like a Russian Gershwin in the Fourth.

“It’s a jazz-influenced language, and the scale of it is more contained than the Third Concerto, which is this absolutely gargantuan piece. But he pares the Fourth Concerto right back, and it’s over before you know it. It’s a bit of a shock, but in context I think it’s going to be fabulous.

“I think that anybody who hears both nights will be astounded.” But, he adds, “I think there probably won’t be an encore.”

Olga Kern will play Rachmaninoff´s concertos on Friday, July 19 and Sunday, July 21. Both performances are at 7:30 p.m. at Chautauqua. Tickets start at $12. Visit for more information