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Category: Interviews


Interview with Kevin Kenner, member of the Jury of the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw.

You are an outstanding interpreter of Chopin’s compositions. Is it difficult to forget about your own interpretations of Chopin’s music and become convinced to somebody else’s propositions?

That’s a very good question, because good judge has to be able to see beyond his own taste. Obviously in the arts there isn’t just one perfect way to approach great music. There are as many ways as there are artists. I try to follow an approach to adjudicating based on a performance’s own merits, irrelevant of its relation to my own interpretation. I’m not perfect in this. Sometimes I follow my emotions, but I always ask myself, what triggered them? Sometimes I become impatient when somebody plays in a way different from my own way, or perhaps in a similar way, but the person plays it more convincingly, and I can get defensive about it. Ideally all Jury members should participate in daily psychotherapy in order to ensure they are not projecting their own ego or their own personal issues onto the performances... (laugh).

What is your method to find few great pianists from among almost eighty? What are your criteria of assessment?

(I can only speak for myself, because we aren’t given any official criteria). First of all I look for someone who has something important to say and also has the gift for communicating that message. I’m also looking for originality which I think is not easy to spot. Sometimes a person can play quite unusually, unexpectedly, in a manner that seems unfamiliar, and we think: “That’s original”. But sometimes it’s not originality, but a kind of concoction of little tricks. Originality is most difficult to find in those interpretations which on the surface do not seem very different from what is deemed conventional. Originality is not so much about being different as it is about the source of one’s approach. If the approach is arrived at from one’s own encounter with the composition, independent of any external influence coming from for example a teacher or learned traditions, then that approach is imbued with an original spirit. Sometimes the originality is very subtle and hard to notice. I’m sure that I have made mistakes in my judgments. I regret some of my judgments. But I hope I have made the right decisions in majority of cases. Unfortunately the Jury is restrained by the system of points. We are trying to put a single number value on a performance that is multidimensional, that has many different aspects. This kind of measuring system doesn’t belong to the arts; it’s borrowed from sports and from the competitive market.

Do you think that Jury could reject a great talent?

I believe that the Jury has done a pretty good job of finding those voices which need to be heard. I think that the best judgments are made collectively. We all have our own unique sensitivity and way of listening and I like very much the dialog among the Jury on the topic of musical values as it challenges each of us to expand the way we listen. Of course it can only be done to a certain degree. But when we get twelve people together who discuss and are open to other interpretations of music I’m confident that together the Jury make better decisions than if I would have made those decisions on my own.

Do you take into consideration professional life of a given candidate, for example the age of the participant, the fact that he had the chance to attend prestigious school etc.?

Maybe to a small extent. A judge should ideally be a prophet with a view of the future. Some pianists are on their way to greatness and we shouldn’t ignore that. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be objective. I put points without reading all the details of each candidate in the booklet, but I try to take into consideration many factors. I am looking for pianists who already have distinctive voice and a certain maturity. Obviously, this is to be expected from a pianist that is 29 or 30 years old, but even if the competitor is quite young, it is still important they show their unique voice.

What would you say to those pianists who spent a lot of time on preparations to this Competition, but they didn’t succeed to consecutive stages? It is an enormous blow for a young pianist.

Exactly. Some of them have been preparing for years. I was a very fortunate pianist because I had only one month to prepare the programme for my competition. Of course, I knew a lot of pieces already, but I simply didn’t have much time to refresh the programme. I had just got married at that time and I had also just finished the Tchaikovsky competition which is a completely different programme. I might have been even more nervous if I had spent years preparing myself for the Chopin Competition realizing that it all comes down to 15 or 20 minutes on stage. I’m sorry for such pianists who are eliminated early on. Maybe they should consider practicing less, not more! I wish for those young pianists that they find their particular road to their artistic life grow. Competition helps only very few, and it can be destructive for many others. I can’t say that I am no advocate of competitions. I take part in it as a juror and I do my best to help the system be as little damaging as possible, but I am no fan of this kind of sport.

Is there something that you would like to improve in a system of assessment?

Yes, absolutely. It’s an ongoing discussion of how we can improve our system of putting a value on a performance and how we can do it in an equitable way among all of us. There have been too many problems with this hundred-points system. The introduction of “yes” and “no” system is a very good innovation, but also has its flaws. For example one performer has something to say but not particularly much, he gets lots of “yes”, then another competitor who’s more controversial is eliminated because he wouldn’t get sufficient bunch of “yeses” . That system needs improvement.

What is your opinion on introducing three dances: waltz, mazurka and polonaise to the second stage?

A good idea would be if we could hear people playing a lot more at the beginning and fewer eliminations. Many pianists are eliminated after the first stage which lasts only 20 minutes. I will never know how they interpret dances. The problem lies in the whole process of elimination which automatically rewards consistency. If you have a bad day early on – you’re out, even if you are a great artist - unless a lenient and prophetic juror recognizes your talent and gives you a second chance to perform again. But it is risky for a judge to make such predictions, and it is easier to simply judge on the merits of that particular day. That’s why in many competitions there are a lot of reliable musicians who have relatively little to say, but they perform in a consistent way. I would rather hear ten horrible performances of a great artist if he can give me one magical moment during the eleventh concert.

Is there any obligatory set of reading: books and articles concerning Fryderyk Chopin that young pianists should read while preparing to the Chopin’s Competition?

That is one side of an overall education in arts. If you want to be a creative musician, this is a very good way to understand the context in which this music was created. However, there are many different ways to get closer to a given music and some of these performers are not very good readers, in the sense that they don’t even read the score very well, but I wouldn’t judge them too harshly. Some of them are looking for new approaches to Chopin and that’s why they may not be very interested in historical knowledge. But this is not a convincing argument as a thorough knowledge of Chopin, his life and culture can inform our interpretations today and actually result in highly creative and innovative approaches.

Are there any books in Polish that you would like to see translated that are dedicated to Chopin?

I don’t know because my Polish is very bad. I only read books that are in English. Of course there are many wonderful books about Chopin out there. Particularly as a performer I am interested in Chopin’s own thoughts found in his letters and in the memoirs of his students, as can be found in Eigeldinger’s famous book on Chopin and his pupils. But I don’t know the Polish books unfortunately.

I’ve been told that there are about 150 different piano competitions in Europe. Do you think that we, Poles, exaggerate the importance of the Chopin Piano Competition?

Not at all. This is a very high-profile competition. Many important artists have won this Competition. It seems to be the latest fashion for every little town to have its own Competition. That’s fine. But this one is a very special one. You can see that people have come from all over the world to listen to these finalists. Time will only tell whether we have made decisions that are going to help the music world or not. I don’t want to make comparisons about competitions. If a great musician has won this Competition, or Tchaikovsky or the Brussels competition, it doesn’t really matter. However, the Competition in Warsaw is very important.  

There are many questions I would like to ask but we don’t have much time. May I only ask how did it happen that you became a musician? Is your family a musical one?

Actually my family is not musical. My mother grew up on a farm in Texas and then spent 20 years racing horses. My father was an English teacher and later became electronic engineer, working for the navy. Music was never really present in my family, but my mother at a certain point wanted her children to do something creative. She bought a baby-grand piano and I remember experimenting on it since I was a toddler. That’s how it happened that I have become a pianist. Thank God for that!

The next part of the interview has been conducted after announcement of the Competition's results:

Would you like to explain the verdict of the Jury?

I know that for many people this was surprise. I can see why this decision was made and I accept it. Yulianna is a remarkable musician. I think she offers us a very important message, namely that great Chopin interpretations benefit from a keen awareness of the sources. In every round, she impressed me very much with her very sophisticated, intelligent readings. I sensed in her approach a certain respect and humility towards Chopin’s own indications in the score which are often overlooked or even dismissed by so many pianists in the present generation. I’m glad that she has been awarded this prize. I think that in a long term we will see that she is an artist to be reckoned with.

Were there any discussions among the Jury about the decision?

The only discussions that we had were about the points and how to interpret them and whether we would have first, second and third prize. We looked at the points and the spacings and we looked at different systems of interpreting the numbers as well and in the end we adopted the system that would allow for one first prize and two seconds.

Could you tell me what do you think about Bozhanov’s playing?

I love Bozhanovs’ playing. I think he is a great artist. There is no greater artist in this Competition. His dilemma was that his approach borders occasionally on caricature and the quality of his work is not always consistent. For me consistency is not the most valuable quality, but in competitions this quality is often rewarded the most. I was deeply moved by some performances of Bozhanov. Some. I have never heard the Polonaise played in such a great style. That’s the real Chopin. And that’s when I knew that he really lives that music. I don’t agree with people saying that he is playing only to make a show.

I was also very impressed by Ingolf Wunder. He has a special connection to this public, maybe because he plays in a traditional Polish style. I understand that because it is the way I feel this music as well from my Polish background. I hope things will go well with him and I am sure he came here to win the top prize, but I think he knows why he received the prize that he did.

I also regret Da Sol Kim and Leonora Armellini. And I regret that Khozyainov, who was my favourite in this Competition from the beginning, was unable to consistency play on a high level as he did in the first stage. I believe he will be an important pianist in 5 years, and has a natural feel for Chopin’s music.

Those were big mistakes and they weren’t mine. There were a few mistakes in this Competition, but generally I am satisfied with the selection of the top 5 winners.

Interview by Katarzyna Hosaniak, Chopin 2010 Celebrations Office.