I first met Olga in September 2003. All of Alaska was abuzz that someone of her fame and talent would come to Alaska. I must admit, I was a bit nervous preparing her piano. She had been touring extensively since her Van Cliburn triumph in 2001 and I really did not know what to expect from someone of her musical stature. I greeted her when she entered the concert hall to rehearse and began to discuss the piano and her personal preferences regarding its tone might be. When I first saw her I was struck by her beauty and warmth. Very few pianists I have worked with over the years were as personable and down-to-earth as Olga. In fact, upon completing her Anchorage performance we flew to Kodiak Island where she was to perform with the Moscow Orchestra and visit with a small Russian Orthodox Children’s Choir located in Kodiak. They performed for her in Russian and she was obviously touched by their gift. Kodiak is a rugged Alaskan island on which is found some of the largest big game animals and abundant fishing found on earth. It boasts the largest bears in the world, the Kodiak Brown Bear. It was first visited by the Russian explorer Baranof in ??? and was a hub of Russian trade and the Russian Orthodox Church which still has a church and school on the island. Kodiak Island boasts one of the largest commercial fishing fleets in the world.
Kodiak has had a strong arts community ever since I came to Alaska in 1986 and would often successfully try and woo world-class artists to the island after they had performed in larger Alaskan cities. I had first visited Kodiak with George Winston in the mid-1990s but had never traveled there with someone of Olga’s reputation. While I never had the privilege of meeting Princess Diana it seemed to me that Olga was made of the same stuff. She was so kind and graceful to everyone she met whether the small obscure Kodiak Children’s Choir or the social elites of Anchorage. Wherever she went she literally took your breath away. I will never forget the first night she performed in Anchorage. I was sitting in the audience of a packed Performing Arts Center that was electric with excitement in anticipation of Olga’s performance. As she strode confidently onto the stage in her gorgeous red dress one heard two distinct sounds. The first was the collective sound of 2000 people gasping for air in awe of her beauty and confidence. The second sound was that “grunting” sound men make when they have been sharply elbowed in the ribs by their wives. It was amusing, to say the least, and Olga’s performance was nothing short of dynamic. I knew when she left Alaska that we had all experienced something quite unique that may never occur again.
But to my great pleasure, Olga returned to the Anchorage stage of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts again in May of 2011 to perform with the Anchorage Symphony (and again in late fall of ???) It had been over 10 years since Olga had taken the Van Cliburn by storm and the “road” had clearly taken its toll on her. The thing most people do not understand about performers is that they sacrifice almost all the relational privileges most of us take for granted in exchange for a life of going from the plane, to the concert stage, to the hotel room to the plane, etc., etc., etc., in what I could only describe as a very lonely shallow existence. And for most well-adjusted performers it is not something they can sustain for very long and maintain any kind of sanity. On this afternoon Olga arrived at the hall to practice and sat for a few minutes just to chat with me. She seemed tired and worn down. We were the only two people in the hall and I think she felt somewhat comfortable with me as we had worked together a few times before. She told me, with tears, that she had been on the road for 235 days and that this would be her last performance before returning to Russia to spend some much-needed time with her son whom she dearly missed. I don’t know that I have ever witnessed a more genuine emotional reality in anyone for whom I have worked. My encounter with Olga gave me a whole new perspective on those road warriors who travel night in and night out to entertain us. God bless them for the sacrifices they have made to grace us with talents we may never encounter again and may we give them the grace to be less pressured so as to be able to enjoy the most meaningful relationships on earth, family.
- In Kodiak with Moscow Orchestra Sep 25, 2003.
- In Anchorage w/ Symphony May 22, 2011.
Image Credit: Olga Kern. (2022, June 16). In Wikipedia.