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Olga Kern brings her gifts to the Sheldon

Olga Kern brings her gifts to the Sheldon

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Russian pianist and Cliburn competition gold medalist Olga Kern, her outsize talent matched only by her exuberant personality, returns to St. Louis this weekend for her first local recital.

She’ll perform at the Sheldon Concert Hall, where the perfect acoustic will, she said in a telephone interview, suit the music on the program. “It needs to have such a great acoustic to make all the contrasts. That helps me so much.

Kern builds her programs with considerable thought. On Sunday night, she’ll start with Beethoven’s 10 Variations on Salieri’s Air “La stessa, la stessissima.” “Not so many people play it or know it. I heard it for the first time at school in Moscow, and I thought, ‘What a beautiful little treasure.’ It just went straight to my heart.”

Next comes Robert Schumann’s big “Carnaval,” a 30-minute set of short pieces depicting partiers in the licentious Carnival season that comes each year just before Lent and ends abruptly on Ash Wednesday.

It can be a tricky work for the performer. The 24 short pieces mean, said Kern, that “you have a tendency to stop after each piece and start another one, and another one. Then you don’t have a feeling of celebration, of Carnival.”

Kern thinks she’s found the way “to put all of this together in kind of a big, big huge line, which is breathing, which is real. Between the beginning and the end, there are so many things going on; it’s a real Carnival, with celebration, intrigues, drama, love, tragedy.”

When she’s playing it, “it goes like flying; it feels like five minutes and I’m done,” she says. “It’s very special for me.”

Kern normally plays some Rachmaninoff in a program’s second half, but for this recital she’s skipping the Russian Romantics. “Next year I will play more Rachmaninoff. 2013 is a double anniversary: He was born in 1873 and died in 1943. I have plans for a recording of his music.

This time, then, she’s performing Chopin and Liszt. She’ll start with five etudes by Chopin (“not all together, opus by opus; I have put them together in a way that they’re all different”) and then go to a pair of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

First she’ll perform No. 10, a relative rarity, but “a brilliant little rhapsody. It just sounds so great, so geniusly done. It shows how great his humor was, how great his composition skills were; it’s a joy to perform.”

The final work on the program is No. 2, “which everybody knows, everybody loves.” Something that everybody who’s heard it may not know is the cadenza composed by Rachmaninoff for it.

“It’s a little piece in itself; I could play it as an encore. It’s total Rachmaninoff. You smell Rachmaninoff, you hear Rachmaninoff. It has jazz in it. It’s a great piece inside another great piece.”


OLGA KERN IN RECITAL

When • 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where  •  Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard

How much • $15 to $20

More info • thesheldon.org or 314-534-1111

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Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.

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