Arts & Culture

Cliburn winner Olga Kern launches namesake piano competition in New Mexico

Van Cliburn gold medalist Olga Kern plays a concert in the new Piano Pavilion Auditorium at the Kimbell Museum on Thursday, January 23, 2014. (Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis)
Van Cliburn gold medalist Olga Kern plays a concert in the new Piano Pavilion Auditorium at the Kimbell Museum on Thursday, January 23, 2014. (Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis) Star-Telegram

A new piano international competition bears a familiar name to Cliburn fans.

The inaugural Olga Kern International Piano Competition will take place Nov. 13-20 in Albuquerque, N.M., with the Russian-born pianist and 2001 Cliburn competition co-winner serving as its artistic director and jury president.

The competition came about after one of Kern’s many appearances with the New Mexico Philharmonic. A conversation she had with Marian Tanau, the executive director of the orchestra, and Dr. Frederick Fiber, a local donor, revealed that they all shared an interest in advancing the musical impact of the New Mexico Philharmonic and that of the state itself.

New Mexico never had something like this before.

Olga Kern

“I play there almost every year,” Kern said in a recent phone interview. “Everyone knows me, and their support in such a big endeavor was assured. New Mexico never had something like this before.

“Of course, Santa Fe has the big opera festival every summer and chamber music, as well. But this is something completely different and will shine a new light on the state’s endeavors in the performing arts.”

Kern certainly knows about piano competitions. When she was only 11, she won the Concertino Praga International Piano Competition in Prague. After that, the number of her competition triumphs grew to 12, ever increasing in prestige.

In 2001, “the pianist in red” dazzled Cliburn audiences and jury members alike, and she shared the gold medal with pianist Stanislav Ioudenitch. Since then, Kern has catapulted into piano superstardom.

But Kern also knows what it is like to compete and not win. In fact, the first time she entered the Cliburn competition, in 1997, she didn’t make it past the preliminary round.

Suddenly, I had lots of concerts and an opportunity to play for people all over the world. This was always my dream and the Cliburn gave that to me.

Olga Kern

The Kern competition is accepting applications.

“Aspiring contestants, who are already at the beginning stage of a professional career and between the ages of 18 and 32, will send in a video ‘audition’ that will be reviewed by the panel of judges, and 20 will be invited to compete,” competition board President Maureen Baca said.

The winner will receive a cash prize of $11,000, a professional recording and — similar to the Cliburn’s top prize — multiple concert engagements through 2018.

“Of course, I had the Cliburn in my mind in the planning process,” Kern said. “While the cash prize was certainly appreciated, for me, the most important thing was to get the engagements.

“Suddenly, I had lots of concerts and an opportunity to play for people all over the world. This was always my dream and the Cliburn gave that to me,” she said.

The Kern competition will take place every three years. The contestants will play a series of solo recitals, and four finalists will play a concerto with the New Mexico Philharmonic.

Unlike the Cliburn, there will not be a chamber music round. However, like the Fort Worth-based competition, there will be a required performance of a newly composed work. For this first event, it will be a piece by Rory Boyle, a Scottish composer and professor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“It requires them to learn a piece they have never heard,” Kern said. “They will have to bring something to a modern piece whose voice is not necessarily familiar.

“Besides, young pianists need to encourage living composers and play their works.”

The nine-person competition jury includes professionals from the worlds of music and piano, including R. Douglas Sheldon, senior vice president and director of Columbia Artists Management; and Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, head of the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School, professor of piano at Texas Christian University School of Music and a former member of the Cliburn jury (including the jury that awarded Kern the gold).

Also serving as a jury member and conductor of the final round concerto performances is Vladimir Kern, Olga Kern’s Moscow-based brother. (Together, brother and sister have founded Aspiration, a foundation that supports young musicians around the world.)

Before Kern’s namesake competition begins, she will be in Fort Worth to serve as jury chair for the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition

The 20 competitors will be announced Aug. 1. Before her namesake competition begins, she will be in Fort Worth to serve as jury chair for the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, which will be June 19-25 at Van Cliburn Recital Hall and Bass Hall.

For more information about the Olga Kern International Piano Competition, visit http://olgakerncompetition.org.

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