Music Review: NSO and pianist Olga Kern offer up some ravishing Rachmaninoff

guerrero-nsoWhy on earth would Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra devote their entire concert this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center to the music of that arch-Romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff?

Because of that drop-dead gorgeous slow movement in the composer’s Second Symphony, that’s why. And while they were at it on Friday night, Guerrero and his musicians took the opportunity to explore some of this perennially popular composer’s less familiar early works.

The concert opened with Two Dances from Aleko, music from a one-act opera on gypsy themes that the prodigiously gifted Rachmaninoff composed as a graduation piece from the Moscow Conservatory. That Rachmaninoff resorted to stereotype and cliché in creating these two dances – Women’s Dance and Men’s Dance – should probably be forgiven. The composer, after all, had grown up in the decidedly unprogressive world of Tsarist Russia and was just 18 when he wrote the music.

That these pieces are positively brimming with color and vigor also argue in their favor. Women’s Dance is filled with exotic clarinet passages that call to mind Carmen at her sultriest, while Men’s Dance is delightfully brassy and muscular. Guerrero and the NSO played both works with polish and style.

olgaDuring the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell described the pianist Olga Kern as having a “bombs away style.” Kern was something of a carpet bomber back then, her playing fiery but not always accurate. On Friday night in Nashville, Kern played Rachmaninoff’s seldom-heard Piano Concerto No. 1 with precision-guided perfection.

Her performance of the concerto’s opening movement – seemingly one long series of double-fisted chords and octaves – was breathtaking. The most difficult feat in classical piano is playing loud and fast at the same time, and in that respect Kern produced a veritable Niagara of sound. Yet she was also capable of great lyricism (that ardent slow movement) and playfulness (that exuberant finale). Guerrero and the NSO provided Kern with dramatic and precise accompaniment from beginning to end. The performance won a rousing ovation, and Kern responded with one of the composer’s knuckle-busting miniatures.

Guerrero and the NSO concluded with the composer’s Symphony No. 2, a sprawling, plush carpet of a piece that boasts some of Rachmaninoff’s most memorable melodies. The strings were utterly ravishing, especially in the lustrous third-movement adagio. English horn, clarinet and French horn solos were also beautifully burnished.

I missed some of the drama that went on between concertmaster Jun Iwasaki and associate concertmaster Gerald Greer. At least I missed how it got started, since I was paying attention to Guerrero.

Midway through the Second Symphony, I noticed that Greer had stopped playing and was frantically trying to retune a violin. Eventually he handed the instrument back to Iwasaki, who never missed a beat and kept playing beautifully. I assume that Iwasaki’s violin suffered some kind of hiccup, and Greer stepped in immediately to assist.

If I’m ever on an airplane that malfunctions, I want calm, cool professional  types like Iwasaki and Greer in the cockpit.


Nashville Symphony under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero presents an all-Rachmaninoff concert. Pianist Olga Kern is soloist. The concert is 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $22 to $148 and are available here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.


  1. This morning on Facebook, associate concertmaster Gerald Greer explained what happened to concertmaster Jun Iwasaki’s violin:

    “Hi John. The malfunction with Jun’s violin was a broken E-string. This happened during one of my favorite parts of the symphony so I changed the string as quickly as possible in order to get Jun’s violin back to him as well as to get myself back into the performance. I always keep a full set of strings in my pocket for this very reason.”

    Well done, Mr. Greer. Well done.

  2. Jessica says:

    Great review! It was such a magnificent performance. I’m so glad I was able to attend. I have one question though, do you have or could you get the title of the piece that Ms. Kern played for her encore? I’d greatly appreciate it. It sounded like she’d said “Musica No. 4” but I couldnt’ hear anything more than that. Thank you!

    • Hi Jessica, you heard correctly. It was one of Rachmaninoff’s most popular encores, the Moment Musicaux in E minor, Op. 16 No. 4. I think I referred to it as a knuckle-buster because it just is, but it is also incredibly beautiful. And Olga just nailed it.