Russian Pianist Olga Kern Joins Grand Rapids Symphony for an All-Tchaikovsky concert, Oct. 4-5


PRESS RELEASE – The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was launched after American pianist Van Cliburn in 1958 won the Gold Medal at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, shocking the world by playing Russian music better than Russian pianists.

Russian-born pianist Olga Kern’s first attempt at the Van Cliburn competition in 1997 didn’t go as well. Eliminated in the preliminary rounds, the 22-year-old pianist returned to Russia, newly divorced with an infant to support.

Four years later, Kern, returned to Fort Worth, Texas, becoming the first woman in more than 30 years to win the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn Competition. Her story is told in the award-winning TV documentary, “Playing on the Edge” about the 2001 Van Cliburn.

“Van Cliburn could play Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky’s music like nobody could before him, and it was in such a great Russian way,” Kern said in an interview in Playbill in June 2018. “I say ‘Russian way’ because the Russians are always sad, even if they are happy.”

Widely acclaimed for her interpretations of Tchaikovsky among other composers, Kern joins the Grand Rapids Symphony for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet, a program entirely devoted to the music of the great Russian composer, at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4-5, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Music Director Marcelo Lehninger leads the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s final work, the magnificent “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6.  The evening opens with the romantic Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy.

Kern, a naturalized American citizen who has lived in New York since her Van Cliburn prize, will be soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat

“Tchaikovsky took Russian music to another level through his use of Russian folk music,” told Playbill in June 2018. “It is what makes his music sound so Russian. But because he learned so much from Europeans and ultimately took so much from all over the world, this lends his music a universal quality.”

“The way he used piano and orchestra together in a concerto is a totally different level of concerto composition,” she said. “Because before then it was a competition between the instrument and the orchestra. But Tchaikovsky really blended the piano with the orchestra.”

Kern, who won first prize at the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition at age 17, comes from a long line of eminent musicians. Her parents are pianists, her mother teaches at Moscow Conservatory of Music, and her brother, Vladimir Kern, is a conductor.

Kern’s great-great grandmother was a friend of Tchaikovsky’s. Her great-grandmother was a mezzo soprano who, by accident, became a collaborator with Rachmaninoff.

“One day, she was on tour with Rachmaninoff songs, and her accompanist got sick. These songs are very difficult for the pianist, and she had to find somebody to accompany her,” Kern said.

As fate would have it, the composer himself, also on tour, happened to be in the same town. When word reached him, Rachmaninoff himself offered to step in.

“Since I was very little, I loved Rachmaninoff’s music,” Kern said, in an interview with the St. Louis Post-dispatch in November 2010.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3 began with sketches the composer meant for his Symphony No. 6. Eventually, he decided to recast it as a concerto for piano and orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6 was his final work. After completing it, he confessed, “I consider this symphony the best thing I have ever done. In any case, it is the most deeply felt. And I love it as I have never loved any of my compositions.” 

He died nine days after its premiere, a victim of cholera. He was 53 years old.

  • Inside the Music, a free, pre-concert, multi-media presentation sponsored by BDO USA, will be held before each performance at 7 p.m. in the DeVos Place Recital Hall. 

Tickets for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet start at $18 and are available at the Grand Rapids Symphony box office, weekdays 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, (located across the street from Calder Plaza). Call (616) 454-9451 x 4 to order by phone. (Phone orders will be charged a $2 per ticket service fee, with a $12 maximum). Tickets are available at the DeVos Place ticket office, weekdays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. or on the day of the concert beginning two hours before the performance. Tickets also may be purchased online at