Van Cliburn

Fifteen years after ‘Olgamania,’ Olga Kern returns to the Cliburn

Olga Kern will be the jury chairman for the Cliburn amateur competition.
Olga Kern will be the jury chairman for the Cliburn amateur competition.

This time, Olga Kern is on the other side of the keyboard.

Beginning Sunday, Kern will serve as jury chairman for the seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, taking place through Saturday in downtown Fort Worth.

While the concert pianist will be adjudicating 69 nonprofessional pianists over seven days of competition, she will also use the time to fan the flames of her love affair with Fort Worth, she says — a relationship that is nearly two decades old.

“I am looking forward to the competition, hearing these inspiring pianists play,” she says. “But, all that aside, it will bring me back to Fort Worth for a few weeks.”

Kern’s history with the city and its flagship Van Cliburn International Piano Competition began in 1997. At age 22, the Russian pianist (then known as Olga Pushechnikova) entered the 10th edition of the quadrennial event for professional pianists. Kern didn’t advance past the preliminary round that year (Jon Nakamatsu won), but something good came from it, she says: a relationship with Fort Worth.

One of the people who remains dear is her “Cliburn host mom,” who offered guidance and friendship to the young pianist while she was far away from home in 1997.

“I was lucky to be assigned to Suzy Williams,” Kern says. “She has a beautiful home with an excellent Steinway, but the best part of that visit is that it was the start of our enduring friendship. She is like my second ‘mom,’ and I am like a member of the family.”

In 2001, she was back at the Cliburn, more determined that ever. Kern tied with Stanislav Ioudenitch for the gold medal, inspired “Olgamania” for her showstopping performances in showstopping dresses, and most importantly, she says, established a close relationship with Van Cliburn that lasted until the end of his life.

Kern lived in Fort Worth for 2  1/2 years after winning in 2001. She put down some roots that last to this day, even though she makes her home in New York City and spends most of her time touring the world.

Fifteen years after her Cliburn win, Kern has firmly established herself as one of the generation’s great pianists. She takes inspiration from helping others realize their full potential, she says.

The Cliburn’s quadrennial amateur competition is for nonprofessional pianists over the age of 35 — nonprofessional defined as those “…who do not derive their principal source of income through piano performance or instruction,” the organization says.

“The term ‘amateur’ doesn’t mean that they don’t play as well as professionals,” Kern says. “These pianists are remarkable. They are professionally trained and have an abundance of talent, but they decided to do something else with their lives.

“Their professions range from physicians and attorneys to office workers and elementary school teachers.”

When you look at Kern’s nonstop touring schedule, it’s easy to see why someone might be hesitant to turn professional, spending their days in a progression of airports, hotels and concert halls. But not because they can’t play well. During the contest, competitors will perform some of the most challenging works ever written for keyboard.

Six finalists will play one movement of a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

“At the last amateur competition, I heard a magnificent performance of two extremely difficult pieces: Robert Schumann’s Toccata and Samuel Barber’s Sonata,” Kern says. “One performance actually brought me to tears.”

Kern will oversee a jury of professional pianists and teachers from around the world, including Akemi Alink-Yamamoto (Japan), Angela Cheng (Canada), Catharine Lysinger (United States), Fali Pavri (India), Andre-Michel Schub (United States) and Nelita True (United States).

They’ll narrow the field to 30 quarterfinalists Monday night; then to 12 semifinalists Wednesday night and six finalists Thursday night. Winners will be announced Sunday evening.

All rounds of competition take place at Van Cliburn Recital Hall or Bass Hall and are open to the public.

“When I meet people, most of them think that Fort Worth is all about livestock, cowboy boots, hats and chicken-fried steaks,” Kern says. “I love to tell them that Fort Worth is not just a city — a place on the map. The real Fort Worth is the people. They are warm, welcoming, generous and instantly friendly.”

“And they love classical music,” she says.

Then, she pauses for an instant.

“And they love pianists,” she adds with a laugh.

Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition

  • June 19-25
  • Van Cliburn Recital Hall and Bass Hall, Fort Worth
  • $10-$60
  • 817-212-4280;
  • Each performance will be webcast at and