WARSAW — Warsaw--Kevin Kenner's bittersweet victory eight days ago at the 12th international Frederic Chopin Piano Competition here posed a fundamental question.
Can a nice guy make it to the very top in the highly competitive concert world? Or is the summit the exclusive domain of ruthless, single-minded egos, as well as flawless technique and musicality?
That Mr. Kenner -- a Peabody graduate who returns to Baltimore to perform at his alma mater Tuesday night -- is a nice guy, no one here doubts.
"He is so nice, so normal," said a concert hall worker charmed by the tall American's unassuming manner. "He is an extremely caring and self-effacing person, especially toward his music," said Baltimore's Leon Fleisher, who taught him for five years at the Peabody.
Mr. Kenner himself admits to a restrained approach. "I don't see music as a vehicle for self-promotion," he said in an interview last week. But will modesty and charm and awareness of others carry him to the top?
The 27-year-old beat 140 contenders in the prestigious competition usually seen as a steppingstone to a world-class career. But he did not win the first prize, which a jury of concert pianists and illustrious teachers withheld in the absence, they said, of a really outstanding talent.
In public, at least, Mr. Kenner displayed impressive self-control. "It's disappointing not to have the first prize," he said. "But I don't feel that it's going to affect my life. . . . I did not come to feel that I am of first-prize quality. My purpose was to get engagements, and I got them."
But Krzystof Brzuza, Mr. Kenner's long-time teacher and adviser from San Diego, told a more moving tale:
"At the presentation of the subsidiary prizes, the organizers kept saying they couldn't give this and they couldn't give that because this and that were only for the first-prize winner. Of course Kevin was terribly humiliated."
The young American, direct and unassuming even on stage, got the audience's vote, however, and won the prize given to the public's favorite. "Kevin loves audiences," Mr. Brzuza said, "and audiences love him."
* The native of Coronado, Calif., began music lessons at 5. "My sister was 9," he said, "and she went to school and learned riding and had art lessons. I felt left out. So when she started music lessons I insisted on taking them, too."
Summer holidays came along and the lessons stopped. The small boy protested to his parents, who realized that here was a serious interest.
By the time he was 7 he was "doing a little composition," he says, and at 12 he was playing Grieg's technically and musically demanding A-minor Piano Concerto.
"I've always felt from a young age that I have something unique," he continued. "But there are thousands who have something unique. It is a question of opportunity. I have been fortunate. I know others who didn't get the breaks."
The breaks Mr. Kenner got included Eugene Prather, a fine first teacher; Mr. Brzuza, "who taught me twice a week, for hours at a time," and who corrected the bad habits engendered by some of dTC Mr. Prather's successors and taught the teen-ager how to practice; Peabody's Mr. Fleisher; and the late Ludwik Stefanski in Poland, who prepared Mr. Kenner for the 1980 Chopin contest and stuck with him for some time after.
They led to an honorable mention (in effect, 10th place) in the 1980 Chopin, even though he was the youngest competitor; to a special award in the Van Cliburn competition last year in Fort Worth, Texas; to third place in Moscow's prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in July; to the Terrence Judd Award in London earlier this month; and to the controversial win in Warsaw.
Why, then, did 21 musical greats in the 1990 Chopin jury, many of them past winners, vote 16 to four against awarding Mr. Kenner the first prize?
"Kenner was very good at the beginning," said Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, one of the four who favored giving him the top honor. "But he dropped points in the third round and his concerto also was not good. He was many points below past winners."
Admittedly, Mr. Kenner had had only three days after the end of the semifinals to practice Chopin's difficult first concerto in E minor, and he knew that he had not played his best.
Mostly, though, it was the pressure of the high expectations that "got to" him, as he put it; he began playing not to lose.
"I was the audience's favorite from the beginning," he said. "So there was pressure to win, and I let it get to me. I started to look back, like a racehorse. I played to hold my lead."
After the second round, most performances in fact degenerated. Poland's only contender in the semifinals, the accomplished 23-year-old Wojciech Switala, collapsed psychologically in the face of media calls that he uphold Poland's honor by reaching the finals. He failed to play at all in the semifinals and went home.