Say the word "Olgamania" in Fort Worth, and no one will ask you, "Olga who?"
Olga Kern made a terrific impression in 2001 when she was co-winner of the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The mania part had to do not only with her piano playing -- although that was certainly a part of it -- but also with her personality and glamorous image.
Kern has been very active in the 10 years since, and on Tuesday, she'll pay a return visit to Bass Hall for a Cliburn Concerts program of music by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Balakirev and Scriabin.
Recently, she paused to talk about the competition, her family, Fort Worth and other matters. She spoke by phone from Prague, where she was on tour.
Naturally, she has good feelings about Fort Worth. "Fort Worth is like my second home," she says. "It's not a place I just go to, see around for half a day and leave. It's really my place. When I was starting my career, the people there were warm and nice. This place is very important to me."
Kern comes from a distinguished Russian musical family. Both her parents are musicians, and she has ancestors who had direct connections to two of the most famous Russian composers, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
"My great-grandmother was a singer," Kern says, "and she performed in concert with Rachmaninoff -- Rachmaninoff accompanied her. Her mother -- my great-great-grandmother -- was a friend of Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky dedicated one of his piano pieces to her, and we have letters he wrote. It's a very big pride for my family to have had five generations of musicians, sometimes touched by great composers."
Kern maintains her ties to Moscow -- she says she still has an apartment there -- but now she considers New York her base when she's not on tour. Her 12-year-old son, Vladislav, is a piano student at the Central Music School of the Moscow Conservatory, but Kern plans to transfer him to the Juilliard School in New York. Kern says it wasn't her doing that Vladislav became a pianist
"It was his choice," she says. "When he was like 2 or 3 years old, he always wanted to play the piano. He's absolutely crazy about it." He has to be, putting in seven hours a day practicing, as he does.
Kern says, perhaps jokingly, that she may have had a prenatal influence on Vladislav: "He heard music in my belly when I was pregnant with him."
That seems to be a family tradition: Her pianist mother played Rachmaninoff when Kern was in her womb.
Kern knows what it's like to lose a competition, by the way. She entered the Cliburn competition twice and was eliminated after the preliminaries the first time, in 1997.
Was she the same musician both times?
"I changed through the years," Kern responds. "I'm sure my appreciation and understanding of music was on a different level. The second time I was older and already had my son. He was very little, but he completely changed my life. All these circumstances changed me.
"Still, the first time I played very well. You never know in a competition what the results will be. There are so many in the jury, so many opinions in music in general. You can't really be sure all the jury members will like you. Somebody likes you; somebody doesn't. You hope that what you do will be finally appreciated in the end. I'm glad that they appreciated me and it happened.
"I'm very happy that it happened there in Fort Worth. This competition is one of the biggest in the world. And to meet Van Cliburn in person ..."
Also competing in the 1997 competition was Dmitri Teterin, who became Kern's husband shortly afterward. They were divorced by the time she entered the 2001 contest.
Kern isn't exclusively a soloist or a pianist-with-orchestra musician. She sometimes accompanies singers, a function that dates back to her conservatory days: "In the Moscow Conservatory, there are obligatory accompaniment classes with singers. Everybody -- all pianists -- have this special class when studying.
"I love the voice; it gives pianists a special understanding of how music can sing, of how phrases can become long lines instead of short phrases. I try to do the same thing on the piano. Because the piano is a percussion instrument, it's very hard to make it sing, but it's important to do so."
Kern has worked with some prominent singers, such as Renée Fleming and Kathleen Battle.
Some of the composers whose music Kern plays, Rachmaninoff in particular, were recorded playing their own music. Asked if she ever listens to them, Kern says, "First I want to make sure that my interpretation is fresh, that it is my own. After I learn, I listen to different interpretations, but only after I learn."
Worldwide touring gives a concert pianist more opportunities to explore than most of us will ever have. Kern tries to make room for some touristy things. "I always try to see as much as possible," she says. "Even if I have only a half-day free, any place I go I always try to go out and experience the people and their culture."
One thing she doesn't like about touring is the security checks. "It's crazy, it's really torture," she exclaims. "I understand that it's important and I feel safer when they are checking me. At the same time, it takes too much time. Hours and hours in line. It's not pleasant."