Kenner wraps Frost Chopin Festival with old and new rarities

By Lawrence Budmen

Kevin Kenner performed music of Chopin and Schumann in the final streamed concert of the Frost Chopin Festival Saturday night.

Commenting on Chopin’s music in 1831, Robert Schumann famously wrote “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.” The musical relationship between these two nineteenth century giants was the subtext of the final streamed concert of the Frost Chopin Festival on Saturday night. Festival artistic director Kevin Kenner was at the Steinway with a five-member string contingent joining him for the two Chopin selections. The program was taped at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music where Kenner is a faculty member.

Kenner’s reading of Schumann’s cycle Waldszenen (Songs of the Forest) covered the middle ground between modernist objectivity and the flexible interpretive liberties of an earlier generation of pianists. After a restrained opening “Eintritt,” Kenner brought tremendous vigor to the entry of the hunters. His rapid articulation of the movement’s theme almost sounded like a tarantella. The depiction of blooming flowers had the melodic intimacy of lieder. There was drama in the Baroque-like patterns of “Verrufene Stelle,” the haunted place emerging eerie and strange. Kenner brought crisp accents to the revelry of the peasants at the wayside inn. “Jaglied” was rousing and “Abschied” displayed Kenner’s poetic side as the hunters and observers bade farewell to nature in flowing melodic turns.  The evenness of phrasing and tone produced by Kenner was impressive throughout the work. 

Chopin’s music has been pivotal to Kenner’s career. He won second prize, the highest awarded that year, at the 1990 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. This fall he will be a member of the jury for the second time at the Warsaw event which is held every five years. In the three decades since his Warsaw honors, Kenner’s technique remains strong and agile and his affinity for the composer’s singular  blend of romantism and Polish dance rhythms emerges fluent and idiomatic.

He played two of Chopin’s concertante scores in new arrangements for piano and string quintet by Polish composer Krzysztof Dombek. The Variations on “Là ci darem’ la mano,” Op.2 represents early Chopin writing entertainment music bereft of profound overtones. This set of variation on the Giovanni-Zerlina duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni ranges from rapid and witty theatricality to mock gravitas. Kevin played the familiar melody with elan at its initial statement and offered almost Brahmsian soberness and muscularity in the send up of a dark, highly dramatic version of the theme. The final polonaise variation was appropriately grand and aristocratic. The five string players provided a warm and vivacious backdrop to Kenner’s brilliant rendition.

Kenner’s hands glided across the keys in the opening solo of the Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brilliante in which he elicited bell-like sonorities with soft dynamics. The polonaise was virile and large in scale without resorting to pounding. Dombek’s string arrangements were stylish and invigorating, spun with obvious enthusiasm by the players. 

The four days of the Chopin Festival have offered diverse interpretations of the composer’s output and other keyboard repertoire. For the students of the academy and global audiences, these virtual recitals have proven stimulating and a tribute to the enduring legacy of Poland’s greatest composer.

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Sun Jul 11, 2021
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