Peabody graduate tops in Chopin piano competition

October 20, 1990|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

WARSAW, Poland -- Kevin Kenner, a Peabody Institute graduate, received the top prize awarded in the 12th international Frederic Chopin Piano Competition early today.

But in an unprecedented decision, the jury of international musical luminaries decided no to award a first prize in the prestigious competition. Mr. Kenner, 27, was judged the best contestant and awarded the second prize.

[The Associated Press reported that the decision to not award a first prize was apparently based on the belief that the competitors performed with technical skill but not genius.]

Mr. Kenner was only the second American to receive an award in the 63-year history of the prize, which was won by Garrick Ohlsson in 1970.

The award is a modest $1,500, but the prestige of the competition is immense, and it can launch a performer's career.

The tall Peabody Conservatory graduate also shared first prize for performance of the polonaise with Polish pianist Wojciech Switala.

Yukio Yokoyama of Japan, a 19-year-old student at the Paris Conservatory, won the third prize. Japan has made a determined onslaught on the contest: This year it sent 20 contestants, the largest contingent in the field of nearly 140 competitors.

The winners were announced early this morning at Warsaw's National Philharmonic after a five-hour delay, during which a jury of musicians including Vladimir Ashkenazy and Baltimore's Leon Fleisher wrestled with what critics were already describing as a high technical standard not matched by musicality.

Disappointment was clearly stamped on Mr. Kenner's exhausted face, and even more so on that of his wife, as they received congratulations. "It is a little disappointing," he said. "There's always been a first prize in this competition. But we have to learn why the decision was made."

While waiting for the announcement, Mr. Kenner underlined the psychological stamina necessary in competitions. "The best musicians are not always the toughest," he said.

A former teacher who still advises him, Krzystof Brzuza of San Diego, Calif., said that Mr. Kenner had been very nervous as he began Chopin's First Piano Concerto in E minor in the final stage of the competition.

"And I was nervous at the end, too," Mr. Kenner said. "But somewhere in the middle I was all right."

Warsaw critic Jan Popis wrote after his performance that "trills [had] not been played so beautifully since the times of [Krystian] Zimerman [the 1975 winner]."

Even so, the jury decided not to award any prize for either the concerto or the mazurka.

Asked how the award would change his life, Mr. Kenner said that he "would maybe get some more concerts."

PTC Almost immediately, he was offered a tour in Germany. "But I think these concerts are for the first prize," Mr. Kenner said. "No," concert manager Rolf Sudbrach replied, "they are for the winner."

Mr. Kenner was born in Colorado. He studied for five years with Mr. Fleisher at the Peabody. He now lives in Hanover, Germany.

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