In 1966 Hollywood provided the madcap farce, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” Now the Russians have come again, but this time it was no joke. It was, instead, an evening of pure bliss with music of Russian composers in a concert titled “Russian Rhapsody,” that featured the Houston Symphony and the finest performance on piano that I have ever personally witnessed, from Russian superstar, Olga Kern.
Before I dwell on the featured work of this superb program, let me share some of the other highlights of the performance. Late afternoon clouds had gently cooled the summer heat of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Making his debut with Houston Symphony, conductor, David Amado, arrived promptly on stage and skillfully guided the fine orchestra through Tchaikovsky’s “Suite #4 in G major.” The brisk opening movement (Gigue) was richly satisfying. The second movement (Minuet) was as elegant and graceful as the smooth motions of maestro Amado. The third movement’s “Prayer” emerged like a glowing sunrise and was aptly named for its serene and prayer-like purity. The final movement’s “Theme and Variations” delivered all the promised variety and featured some rapid-fire tempos performed with great orchestral precision. There were flashes of lightning in the night sky, and rain began to hum across the Pavilion roof during the beautiful violin solo of Concertmaster, Uri Pianka. Audible thunder accompanied the crescendos of the work’s thrilling conclusion.
The program included all the playful pulsations and sharp edges of Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka.” Then, too, there were the sweeping mystery, shimmering power, and many moods of the orchestra’s well-executed “Francesca da Rimi,” another piece by Tchaikovsky. There were many of the thrilling escalations and much of the thrashing excitement we identify with the composer’s more familiar work, “The 1812 Overture.” Conductor Amado was able to weave a magic spell with the haunting beauty of this exquisite music, so skillfully performed by those in his charge. And the noise of distant rolling thunder, during the fierce conclusion of the piece, hinted the gods were adding even a bit more excitement than the composer intended.
Speaking of excitement, let us turn now to the evening’s main event, Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” For her debut with the Houston Symphony, the radiantly beautiful soloist, Miss Kern, arrived on stage in a soft and elegant, floor-length crimson gown that was exquisite. A gleaming diamond necklace, and glittering shoes that rivaled the Ruby Slippers, completed her ensemble. The fair and slender blonde looked like a finalist in the Miss Universe Contest. But all of that was as nothing when put beside the towering talent she was about to demonstrate. Her posture was at once elegant and authoritative, while her keyboard “attack” was as precisely crisp as could be imagined. The delicate arms gave no hint of the strength and power she would bring to each seemingly impossible new level of the piece. She displayed a brilliant and fluid approach to the immense complexities of a work that alternates between almost savage intensity and passages of rich delicacy. Her technique was nothing short of dazzling; and she brought a gentle and hypnotic grace to the most sweetly melodic passages. With perfect support from conductor and orchestra, Kern’s precision and intensity of focus were both astounding and unrelenting.
I glanced around at the faces of the captivated crowd. I sensed that, like me, they could not believe what they were seeing and hearing. Then, when Kern played the most familiar theme in the piece, it was absolutely breathtaking perfection. The standing ovation that followed was a long one.
A resident of The Woodlands, Bill Stewart, was in attendance. After the concert he overheard what he described as “an old Texas geezer” commenting on Kern’s unforgettable performance: “Boy! That gal was good!”
(The Courier 8.24.03)