Kenner plays well, but without greatness


October 31, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

All 700-odd seats in the Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall were filled last night and people crowded the back in search of standing room.

The reason was the first concert in the United States by pianist Kevin Kenner since he won second prize -- the highest awarded -- in Warsaw's Chopin Competition less than two weeks ago. Kenner is a Peabody graduate (he spent five years working with Leon Fleisher) and the 27-year-old pianist has been among the most successful of recent American competition contestants. Last June he shared third prize in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition and somewhat later in the summer he was awarded London's Terrence Judd Award.

Kenner had a hero's welcome last night. He was warmly applauded when he walked on stage to play Chopin's E Minor Concerto with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Everett Lee. When he finished playing, he was awarded a standing ovation.

There have been some great pianists who have emerged with second prize at the Warsaw competition -- Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mitsuko Uchida and the now-forgotten Rosa Tamarkina among them. On the basis of last night's Chopin E Minor, I would not count Kenner among them. He has a fine technique, a lovely touch that produces feathery pianissimos and ringing fortissimos with equal ease and a real feeling for Chopin. But although there were some lovely moments in each movement -- particularly a simple, dignified approach to the first theme and some interesting ideas in the first movement about the relation of melody and accompaniment -- his performance seemed relatively ordinary.

This is not to say that Kenner is a bad pianist -- he is a good one -- or that those who cheered him were wrong. It is only to say this listener (who listens to this piece frequently both for business and for pleasure) did not find Kenner's performance of it stimulating.

In all fairness to Kenner, it must be noted that the accompaniment he received from the student orchestra was pretty dreadful. True, the student orchestra had only two rehearsals with the pianist to learn the piece (he was originally scheduled to play Mozart's K. 467). But knowing that the frequently out-of-tune orchestra was either behind or ahead of him -- and sometimes, perhaps, not being able to predict where it might be -- could not have been easy on the young pianist, who nevertheless forged ahead fearlessly.

Conductor Lee, the orchestra's wind players, percussionists and tympanist opened the concert with Jesus Pinzon's "Rito Cubeo." This Colombian composer's piece had folkloric flair, tunefulness and a great sense of humor. The student musicians performed it terrifically well.

The length of the first half of the concert combined with a deadline to prevent this listener from hearing the concluding work, Dvorak's Symphony No. 6 in D Major.

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