Kevin Kenner feels most at home with Chopin. It's hard to say if Chopin would feel the same about Kenner. But 700 people at the Peabody Institute's sold-out Friedberg Concert Hall last night felt at home with both gentlemen and awarded both first-place applause.
The 27-year-old Kenner played Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor" with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra instead of the earlier planned Mozart Concerto No. 20. It was the same deeply Romantic piece he had played in Warsaw two weeks ago in winning top honors -- but only second prize -- in the Chopin Piano Competition.
In his first American appearance since Warsaw, Kenner played the No. 1 calmly, accurately, and poetically. And he played it in 39 minutes, which is a very long time. His orchestra collaborators tried hard to match his level of musical maturity and occasional risk-taking under the direction of Everett Lee, guest conductor. They sometimes succeeded.
But it was the lanky, 6-foot-4 Kenner who showed everyone the beauty of Chopin as the Arthur Friedheim Memorial soloist. Not all Friedberg Hall eyes were dry last night during Kenner's interpretation of Chopin's slow, almost serene second movement Romance. But all coughs were stilled and the silence was as expressive as the applause at the end. When that honor came, it was with some cheers and with many standing, among them Kenner's former Peabody teacher Leon Fleisher.
Of course, there is still more maturity and depth to come for Kenner. He'll likely find those attributes in concert tours in Germany, Japan and elsewhere, much in the way he found technical skills, toughness and other tools at the conservatory and in 10 years playing competitively. It was appropriate that his first American date, scheduled some time ago, would be at Peabody, where he learned matters of style and approach from Fleisher and where he skipped his graduation last year to compete in the Van Cliburn competition in Texas.
Most listeners stayed for the second half of last night's program, Dvorak's "Symphony No. 6." It was the full orchestra's time to shine. Conductor Lee diligently shaped the large contingent's sharp attacks, quick retreats and harmonies to capture the Czech composer's brightly colored melodies. Yet, near the end, if it seemed like a very tall Bohemian beer with endless folksy suds, one could blame Dvorak or possibly the hour (the program ended at 10:35 p.m.).
The evening's music had a Latin American birth. Four percussionists led by Jennifer Hervey beat some great rhythms front and sides as a small Peabody orchestra group performed a three-movement work, "Rito Cubeo" by Jesus Pinzon, of Bogota, Colombia. Other percussionists were David Brensilver, Robert Tucker and Richard Grimes.
At the outset, Robert Pierce, director of the Peabody Institute, thanked Mrs. Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg and the Blaustein-Rosenberg-Thalheimer family of Baltimore for its "extraordinary commitment" to Peabody in recent years.