The old saying that "the apple does not fall far from the tree" is certainly true in the case of pianist Olga Kern. The award-winning Russian-born pianist...

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The old saying that “the apple does not fall far from the tree” is certainly true in the case of pianist Olga Kern.

The award-winning Russian-born pianist, who makes her Seattle debut Sunday as soloist in an eagerly awaited concert by the Moscow Virtuosi, can look into her own family tree for inspiration. Her great-great grandmother was a good friend of Tchaikovsky’s, and the family still has his photos and letters from the famous composer. And her great-grandmother, a singer who toured throughout Russia performing the songs of Rachmaninoff, was accompanied on one occasion by the composer himself.

Kern’s mother, whom she calls “an incredible pianist and my first teacher,” played Rachmaninoff’s demanding Piano Concerto No. 3 so often during her pregnancy that Kern swears it was easy for her to learn as a teenager. It later became her vehicle to stardom, clinching her Cliburn Competition win.

“I must tell you,” said Kern in a recent interview from a stop on tour in Luxembourg, “that when I started to learn this concerto at 15 or 16 years old, it was so easy for me to learn. I knew this piece! I asked, ‘Mama, how is it possible that I feel like I know this piece?’ And she said it might be because she was practicing and performing it all the time while I was in her belly.”

Kern, now 33, who shot to stardom seven years ago with a gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, knows she was born to play the piano.

“I love to be on stage and perform with public and share with audience what I love the most,” she explains. “It was always my passion since I was very little. My first concert was at 7 years old, and I remember those feelings when I took the first steps on stage to perform with orchestra. It was a Haydn Concerto in Moscow, and I still remember that excitement, that stage fright and the energy from the public. It was incredible! I didn’t want to leave; I wanted to stay forever. And those feelings are always with me.”

Winning the Cliburn made her an immediate celebrity, especially since the competition became the subject of an award-winning TV documentary (“Playing on the Edge”) that helped make the beautiful blond pianist a star. The responsibilities of such a win are huge, as concert presenters and audiences expect the very best, and judge the winner with keen scrutiny. Many who win aren’t really ready to go out and make a career, lacking the maturity and the repertoire and the direction.

Kern, however, had all three. She now plays about 150 concerts a year, tours internationally with top conductors and orchestras and is a busy figure in the recording studio as well (she records for the Harmonia Mundi label).

“I almost forget how I was before the Cliburn,” she confesses, “because afterwards it has been so busy. It has just been an incredible seven years.”

The life of a busy touring soloist, of course, has its drawbacks. Kern doesn’t really like to travel — the flights, the traffic and the hotels. But she’s always happy, she says, once she gets to the concert hall.

It’s also difficult being the mother of a young child (her son is now 9), whom she sees whenever she gets back to Moscow.

“I’m very lucky,” Kern says, “that my parents are helping a lot. My son also is getting piano lessons from my mother, who is a great teacher.”

Kern’s only previous visits to the Northwest involved a performance with the Tacoma Symphony and a chamber concert during her student days at the Moscow Conservatory: “It was a student exchange. They sent me to do chamber music from place to place, touring all over the States. I loved it in Seattle because the nature was so amazing — all those beautiful mountains and the water.”

Her Seattle appearance Sunday will be a collaboration with the renowned Russian violinist/conductor Vladimir Spivakov, whose ensemble Moscow Virtuosi is making its 30th-anniversary tour. She has previously toured with Spivakov, whom she calls “an amazing conductor. We really share ideas. Each time I play with him it is different; the music is fresh every time. He is an incredible musician, artist and person; he is a poet, and so intelligent. To spend time with him was so special, it really changed me. I felt like I grew up.”

Here in Seattle, she will play two concerti in the Moscow Virtuosi concert — by Haydn and Shostakovich, which Kern calls “so different from each other, but so wonderful. I can’t wait for this tour.”

Melinda Bargreen: