Despite Chopin jury's unusual decision, future bright for Peabody graduate

October 21, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic Kay Withers, special correspondent to The Sun, and Tom Kavanagh of the The Sun's Features staff contributed to this article.

Kevin Kenner should never have to enter a piano competitio again.

The 27-year-old Peabody-trained American won "only" second prize in the 12th international Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland, early yesterday. But no first prize was awarded, and that left Mr. Kenner the top prize winner in one of the two most prestigious piano contests in the world -- Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition, in which Mr. Kenner won third place this summer, is the other.

The Chopin finish also made him the only American to have emerged at the top of the heap in Warsaw since Garrick Ohlsson's historic victory there in 1970. Good recital dates, engagements with important orchestras and perhaps even a recording contract are likely in the offing.

Mr. Kenner, who had become an audience favorite during the competition -- which began in early October with nearly 140 entrants -- shared a special prize for his performance of a Chopin polonaise with Polish pianist Wojciech Switala. But he was understandably disappointed when the judges' decision was announced. Noting that never in the quinquennial event's history had the Warsaw jurors decided not to award a first prize, he said afterward, "The best musicians are not always the toughest."

The young American, who performed again last night in the event's closing concert, could not be reached for further comment yesterday. But Leon Fleisher, who taught Mr. Kenner at the Peabody Institute for five years and was a member of the 22-person panel which judged the competition, said that no one else was ever a serious contender for the first prize.

"The jury was very taken with Kenner," he told The Sun. "He was obviously the person from the beginning. But his later showing did not match their expectations."

Mr. Fleisher, who was restrained by the competition's rules from voting for his own student, refused to give his personal view of Mr. Kenner's performance.

Peabody spokeswoman Anne Garside, while expressinexcitement and pride over Mr. Kenner's achievement, said she found the jurors' decision "very curious." Noting reports that the judges felt the competitors performed with technical skill but not genius, she said, "Those of us who know Kevin know he has an extremely sensitive touch. He's not just a workhorse competitor. If there was some letdown in the final round, it may have been because of the grueling nature of his schedule. The stress might have been taking its toll."

Mr. Fleisher said he did not think that Mr. Kenner's failure to win the coveted first prize would damage his career. "He has enormous talent but is still finding himself. When this process is completed, he will be a first-class and maybe a world-class artiste."

Indeed, the Colorado native who now lives in Hanover, Germanyneed not worry about his career if the Chopin proves to be the prognosticator of success it has been in the past. First-prize winners have included such stars as Maurizio Pollini, Martha Angerich and Krystian Zimerman. And many of the lesser-prize winners became just as well known. Since 1927, the finalists have included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mitsuko Uchida, Witold Malcuszynski and Gregory Ginzburg.

Even when stunned with disappointment following the judges' announcement, Mr. Kenner received a taste of what's ahead when concert manager Rolf Sudbrach offered him a tour in Germany.

"But I think these concerts are for the first prize," Mr. Kenner

said. "No," Mr. Sudbrach replied, "they are for the winner."

One of his first post-victory concerts will be in Baltimore Oct. 30 when he performs with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in the Arthur Friedheim Memorial Concert at Friedberg Concert Hall. "We hope to give him a rousing welcome. . . . I can't think of anyone who has had a more spectacular string of wins," Ms. Garside said.

That string began at the Van Cliburn competition in 1989 when Mr. Kenner was the top-ranking American and a finalist. He placed third in the Tchaikovsky this summer and just prior to the Chopin won the Terrence Judd Award in London.

Both the Peabody and especially Mr. Fleisher will emerge as winners also from the Chopin competition. Mr. Fleisher is usually referred to as perhaps the most sought-after piano teacher in the world. Now that qualifying "perhaps" may be removed. From London to Tokyo, many of the world's most talented and ambitious pianists will -- quite correctly -- attribute part of Mr. Kenner's successes to the training he received at Peabody from Mr. Fleisher.

As for the conservatory itself, Mr. Kenner's latest achievement comes on the heels of a successful fund-raising campaign intended to solve the 133-year-old school's financial difficulties and is "just another indicator that we're right back on top of it," Ms. Garside said. Noting that other Peabody-trained musicians have done well recently in lesser-known competitions, she added, "Every time a graduate has a win, it's like the stock market: the school's reputation goes up a few points."

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