Olga Kern in Toronto

Olga Kern is a 30-something virtuoso pianist from Russia, whose North American fame became assured in 2001 when she won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. She was in Toronto recently as part of a duo tour with distinguished violinist Vladimir Spivakov, a fellow Russian a generation older than she. The two of them played a sold-out recital (!) at Koerner Hall on Thursday, February 23, presented by local Russian-Canadian impresario Show One Productions. Sonatas of Brahms and Franck anchored the serious bill, along with neoclassical Stravinsky (Suite Italienne) and the moving Spiegel im Spiegel of Arvo Pärt.

It proved a recital of understated perfection. Spivakov is an immaculate, restrained fiddler with silky light tone, and Kern accompanied him almost deferentially. Their playing was gorgeous, in a coolly dignified way. A rapt audience of predominantly Russians soaked it all up with reverence.

A day prior, Kern had presented a keyboard master class at Robert Lowery Piano Experts, inaugurating what is hoped to be an ongoing series of occasional piano master classes at this Leaside piano dealer. The spacious upstairs salon showroom was a lovely venue, and the piano was no less than a $200,000 Bösendorfer Imperial nine-and-a-half foot concert grand (on which Kern played her duo recital the following evening at Koerner Hall).

Three piano students were selected for this public learning forum, each of whom had been a prizewinner in the North York Piano Festival: 11-year-old Coco Ma of Toronto, high-school age Amadeusz Kazubowski-Houston of Waterloo, and adult Ricker Choi of Toronto. Each of them proved an extremely well-trained and flexible pianist, capable of enduring Madame Kern’s constant reproaches in front of an audience of perhaps eighty.

Kazubowski-Houston, a ponytailed, seemingly inward fellow of fifteen, offered the Chopin Fantaisie in f minor: his name and career I will enjoy following over the coming years. His technical equipment is already solidly in place, but more importantly, he offered welcome tenderness and poetry in this work, more than the martial heroics Kern kept stressing.

Coca Ma played the songful Ballade No. 3 of Chopin admirably for a young girl; she will grow into its emotions. She deserved a medal for putting up with a stern Russian lady towering over her and shouting commands like “More relaxed!” Maybe when you’re eleven years old and a talented pianist you’re used to being shouted at.

Ricker Choi, about the same age as Kern, presented a fascinating biography. He began the piano at age 13, then dropped it altogether at age 18 for a decade of studies in business and eventual work as a financial analyst.

Nowadays he is back to pursuing the piano with a vengeance, despite his day job in the banking industry. He is one of the pack of current hotshot adult amateur piano contestants who travel the globe to compete against other part-time pianists in international amateur competitions, and he has the trophies to prove it.

Choi played Liszt’s brash First Mephisto Waltz with clinical precision, spare pedaling, and clear engagement. Then it was time for Kern to critique his rendition almost bar by bar, and re-sculpt it to suit her taste. She observed that Choi was employing myriad tiny adjustments of tempo for expressive effect, and this annoyed her – and so he gamely adapted to a more metronomic version of Liszt’s dance.

Clearly Olga Kern is not someone for whom teaching represents the give-and-take of ideas; instead she proved an old-world European autocrat. On the plus side, we did experience a woman consumed by music, who frequently gestured, and sang, and demonstrated at the piano. She devoted ample time to each of the three participants, and went through their scores in detail. She was not cruel in her remarks, just grim and arbitrary.

Let’s hope future master classes will be more nourishing.