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IN REVIEW: Recital by local piano student suggests that Cliburn Silver was no fluke

By Paul Horsley

Trying to gauge the artistry of a musician on the basis of a performance at an international composition is like trying to identify a future Oscar-winning filmmaker on the basis of a YouTube “short” he or she made in high school. This most unnatural of settings (for which the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has become notorious) tends to push musicians toward extremes that might or might not make sense on a consistent basis in concert settings year-in and year-out.

But now and then a musician appears who competes with a well-measured yet bracingly exciting vision of the music, and that happened this year when Kenny Broberg performed at the 15th Cliburn Competition in June. This approach won the Silver Medal for Kenny, who is a graduate student of Stanislav Ioudenitch at Park University. So naturally everyone in Kansas City who cares about music was exceptionally eager to find out if Kenny’s Cliburn win was a fluke. Was his well-seasoned, at times straight-laced approach truly deserving of the Cliburn finals? Or did he in fact actually deserve the Gold, as some critics and audience members (many of whom watched the contest through live web-streaming, as I myself did) have expressed to me in recent weeks?

Cliburn Friday Preliminary RoundThus it was with great satisfaction to learn, in the near-capacity Folly Theater recital Kenny played on September 10th, that not only was the Cliburn medal not a fluke, but that the Minnesota-born pianist is if anything an even more profoundly meaningful artist than his competition performances had suggested. Whether because of the more relaxed, supportive atmosphere of the “hometown” audience or because Kenny has continued to grow as an artist since June (he is, after all, only 24), his recital of four of the solo works he played in Fort Worth rang even more truly and sincerely than ever.

Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variations, an organ work transcribed for piano by Harold Bauer, was announced with a cushiony, almost feathery touch. The initial haze lifted to reveal tender distinctions between voices: Kenny possesses an amazing ability to untangle complex textures so that the ear is continually cognizant of the most important lines. This was even more evident in the fugal entrances, pointedly gauged to play off each other: Each new entrance resembled the articulation of the previous, but differed from it just enough to open the texture to a sort of expansive freedom in the midst of the ever-growing complexity. The “agogic” give-and-take, poised halfway between Baroque and Romantic, felt tranquilly natural. Yet by the end, this sort of calming effect almost came off as lack of tension—as if we hadn’t moved far to get from point A to point B.

Bach’s C-minor Toccata began with deliberate gentility, as if still emerging from the perfumed, Romantic haze of the Franck. But this quickly gave way to the headlong rush of Bach in full-throttled contrapuntal trappings: Kenny’s analytical skill in polyphonic textures is one of his great strengths, yet instead of getting bogged down in the complexity he revels in the forward-motion that is the very essence of counterpoint.

Barber’s Piano Sonata is sometimes described as “problematic,” but in Kenny’s hands its first movement, at least, felt uncommonly coherent. The piece is a subtle combination of European and American trends of the 1940s, from atonality to Romanticism and beyond. In Kenny’s hands one heard hints of Ives and Prokofiev, and perhaps a tad of Rachmaninoff but without the heaviness. In fact the “scherzo” was amply suspenseful but mostly tinged with flighty wit: This sense that Barber’s sonata contained “good-but-perhaps-not-great” music followed us into the nonchalant slow movement. The final fugue was brought off with enormous energy and clarity, its virtuoso passages clean and precise yet avoiding the overtly Russian showiness that is too often on display here.

Cliburn winners, from left: Daniel Hsu (Bronze), Kenny Broberg (Silver) and Yekwon Sunwoo (Gold) / Photo by Ralph Lauer, The Cliburn

Liszt’s B-minor Sonata is more a conceptual than a technical challenge: It “lies well in the hands” and its expressive sweep feels, on its surface, somewhat straightforward. What few pianists unlock is the mystery of its structure: This odd milestone of Western music is a densely segmented sonata expressed in a single, unbroken sweep: An artist must thus engage both the ear and the mind through 30 minutes of continuous music. Kenny’s grasp of the chromatic-dramatic elements here was impressive: Modulations were imbued with the psychological significance they deserved, and the big gorgeous melodies were played with a full-bodied touch that never grew crass or bangy.

The initial climax felt underplayed, yet this was perhaps intentional, as it allowed the second emotional peak to explode with great force. The thunder leading up to the final fugue felt vaguely underwhelming, but again this seemed strategic, as if to help build tension toward the fugue. Sadly an unidentified noise in the hall seemed to distract both pianist and audience at this point. Kenny recovered and tore into the fugue like a lion-tamer. The reprise of the opening Grandioso theme was gauged to match its original tempo exactly (no small task when so much time has elapsed), and for the tender coda Kenny “just played”—allowing Liszt to do his job by leading us gently into oblivion.

Chopin’s F-sharp-minor Mazurka (Op. 59, No. 3), the first of Kenny’s two encores, had an open, naturally poetic feel, while Earl Wild’s extravagant arrangement of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” was played with fluidity and suitable hyperbole.

Photo at top courtesy of Park University; all other photos courtesy of The Cliburn.

For information on upcoming concerts at Park’s International Center for Music click here.

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To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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