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[Herald Interview] Pianist Kevin Kenner explores humor in classical music

Pianist Kevin Kenner believes humor can improve people’s lives, even more than aspirin.

Kenner, who is in South Korea for his second solo recital in the country, titled “Humoresque,” will perform at the Seoul Arts Center on Thursday and at the U-Square Culture Center in Gwangju on Friday.

The California-born pianist won the top prize at the 1990 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. The same year, he also won a medal at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, becoming the only American pianist to have won medals in both competitions. 

Pianist Kevin Kenner speaks during a press conference in Insa-dong, central Seoul. (Music & Art Company)
Pianist Kevin Kenner speaks during a press conference in Insa-dong, central Seoul. (Music & Art Company)

“Humor helps us escape harsh realities of the world,” Kenner said during a press event Tuesday in Insa-dong, central Seoul. “I feel that humor is very important. It can really transform one’s life perspective into something more positive, unlike humor as temporary relief from life’s harsh realities, like aspirin.”

Centering on the subject of humor, Kenner came up with a program that delves into how different composers project the idea of humor in their own unique ways. The program includes Haydn’s Sonata in C major, Schumann’s “Davidsbundlertanze,” Chopin’s 5 Mazurkas and Scherzo No. 4 and Paderewski’s 6 Humoresques.

“For example, in the music of Haydn, the techniques are used to induce humor. Rhetoric was something that was a greatest interest to Haydn. I became much more purely focused on the particular figures in Haydn’s music that have rhetorical functions and how I can use those figures, express them in a particular way,” he said.

In Korea, the pianist is known for his longtime partnership with violinist Chung Kyung-wha. He met Chung at the 2011 Great Mountains Music Festival. Since then, they have worked together on an album and multiple tours. He often refers to Chung as his “lifetime companion.”

“With Kyung-hwa, we speak about everything. She is a remarkable human being. She is a person who knows how to laugh,” he said.

Though Kenner loves to perform on the stage, teaching is also a passion. He was a professor of piano at the Royal College of Music in London for 11 years. Since 2015, he has taught at the Frost School of Music at University of Miami.

Speaking on his role as a teacher, Kenner mentioned pianist Cho Sung-jin. He met the young pianist at a master class in 2011.

“We just played Chopin’s ballad and I left the room thinking, ‘Wow. This boy doesn’t just listen to my advice.’ He had me thinking I was learning something from him,” he said.

“There is no change in my assessment in his greatness as a pianist. But I think his playing has changed. The experience of performing has allowed him to follow his own instincts in music, have more and more individual voice,” Kenner said. “I am happy to have a small place in his life -- to have made a small contribution.”

Since 2018, Kenner has led the Frost Chopin Festival in Miami, celebrating the music of Chopin. He is the artistic director of the summer festival.

“I really don’t know what got into me. I really am not very organized, never imagined myself to be a director of a festival,” the pianist said. “I thought it would be wonderful to invite the friends I met over the years to my city and make music together. I like being with people and I guess the only way to get them come to Miami was to have a festival.”

“Having a festival in Miami is really special. It is a place people can sort of relax and have fun. I feel very fortunate that I have the possibility to create something there. Less formal but focused on the joy of making music. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.

By Im Eun-byel (