Kenner brings insight and virtuosity to a Liszt masterwork at Chopin Festival

By Lawrence Budmen

Kevin Kenner performed Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (Book I Suisse) Tuesday night at the Frost Chopin Festival. Photo: Redi Llupa/FCF

The quality of the students at this year’s Frost Chopin Academy is exceedingly high. Three of these gifted young artists took the stage at UM Gusman Concert Hall on Tuesday night in the first half of a Frost Chopin Festival presentation. Festival director Kevin Kenner concluded the evening with a powerhouse performance of one of Franz Liszt’s keyboard monuments.

JingEn Chen, 30, gave a fine account last fall of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 with the Frost Symphony Orchestra. Chen, currently studying with Kenner at the Frost School, exceeded that initial impression with a sensitive, deeply musical reading of the first eight of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28. 

The China-born pianist displayed exemplary technique, drawing a large sonority from the Steinway. Chen brought forth the lyrical flow of the famous Prelude No. 4 in E minor without resorting to an overly slow tempo. The Prelude No. 3 in G Major emerged crisp and effervescent while Chen shaped the thematic contour of the Prelude No. 6 in B minor with restrained elegance. Her rendition of the Prelude No. 8 in F-sharp minor more than lived up to the score’s “molto agitato” marking. Both the grace and power of Chopin’s writing were well served by Chen.

Vojtech Trubac, 26 from the Czech Republic, showcased a seemingly natural affinity for the romantic idiom of Chopin’s Variations brilliantes, Op. 12. He managed to differentiate each of the variations on an original theme with judicious rubato and supple differentiations of pulse. Rapid arpeggiated passages were cleanly articulated and slower sections spun poetically. Trubac proved fully equal to the demands of this early showpiece.

At 18, the American-born Carey Byron is one of the academy’s youngest students but she is hardly lacking in dexterity. Playing the first two movements of Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35. Byron could make the keyboard thunder but she provided detailed contrast with songful phrasing of the second motif.  The devilish figures of the Scherzo resounded with clarity and a  deliberate central episode emerged as more than a mere transition in Byron’s well-considered iteration.

Kenner was a major prize winner at the 1990 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Over three decades later, his keyboard mastery and musical acuity are even more stellar. 

Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) comprise a series of descriptive suites based on Liszt’s travels with quotations from famous writers, buttressing the individual vignettes. Kenner assayed the first book “Suisse” (Switzerland). Excerpts from the writings of Schiller and Lord Byron referenced by Liszt and paintings (by J.M.W. Turner and Anton Aschenbach among others) chosen by Kenner were projected behind the piano throughout the performance.

The forceful opening chords of “William Tell’s Chapel” immediately radiated authority. Kenner played the noble principal motif with majestic sweep in this sonic portrait of the battle for Swiss liberation. 

His huge range of dynamics, at times, were shattering in velocity. “At Lake Wallenstadt” and “Pastorale” suggested Liszt’s charming side, Kenner’s figurations were light as a feather, and the rippling waters of “Beside a Spring” were articulated with verve. Kenner unleashed cascades of notes at rapid pace as a “Storm” of Lisztian fireworks engulfed the stage.

“Vallée d’Obermann” is often programmed as an independent piece. This nearly fifteen-minute movement is a sweeping panorama, running the gamut from high drama to quiet contemplation. Kenner’s burnished tone and rich sonorities gave full weight to these extremes. He evoked the mystery of the valley’s stillness with beautiful soft phrases. The big moments resounded with passion to spare. “Eclogue; Epilogue” mixed reserved undertones and the vigor of a country dance/ Kenner projected the diverse patterns of darkness and nostalgia in “Homesickness.” The pearly sounding melodic fragments of “The Bells of Geneva:Nocturne” rang with delicacy and polish. Kenner’s interpretation of this difficult opus was exciting, both as a demonstration of artistic insight and boundless virtuosity.

The loud ovation led to an introspective encore. Prelude, Op. 38, no. 1 by Ukrainian composer Boris Lyatoshinsky was a richly inspired work with emotional pathos that inevitably called to mind the tragic war unfolding in that nation. Kenner’s intense version capped a rewarding evening of skilled pianism.

Dang Thai Son plays works by Fauré and Chopin and Frost Chopin Academy students Erica Do, Yuka Tsunemoto and Kevin Knowles play scores by Chopin  7:30 p.m. Friday at the UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables.


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Wed Jun 28, 2023
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