Thanks to the Kahilu Theatre, in which there are no bad seats and there is a new Steinway piano worth every penny (about 10 million of them!), we were privileged to hear 23-year-old Kenny Broberg, silver medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2017-2018.
Van Cliburn was to classical piano what Bobby Fischer was to chess or Tiger Woods is to golf: Americans of such towering capabilities that they transcend the usual fan base to become international celebrities, bringing many more people into the orbit of the field of their expertise. What other classical pianist besides Cliburn had a record that went platinum?!
Broberg, from Minneapolis, played baseball and hockey, and he plays piano with muscularity as well. Piano is a full-body sport even though it involves just 11 points of contact – ten fingers and one foot. You can see, for example, how he leverages the weight of his body to pound out the fortissimo chords, how he bends low over the keyboard rapidly picking out keys like an electronics worker on an assembly line, or how he uses his entire arm to massage a note to extract the utmost subtleties of sound from the strings (the closest pianists come to vibrato). It made me think that pianists would make good surgeons and vice versa, with the firmness and precision they must exercise.
Often, younger artists who are technical virtuosos lack emotional depth; that is not true of Kenny Broberg. The pieces he selected came from four composers from different countries and from different periods. All were mostly in minor key, full of tortured rhythms and chaotic sensibilities – I hope there have not been any tragedies in this young man’s life to enable him to tap into the dark side! His signature seems to be a love of enormous contrasts in volume and tempo; he brought that style to all the pieces.
Cesar Franck’s short Prelude, Fugue et Variation, op. 18, has a hauntingly beautiful theme presented in the prelude, which is taken up in both the higher and lower registers, and re-presented in the fugue variations of the fourth movement, providing a satisfying closing of the circle. Broberg delivers a highly emotional performance, without descending into schmaltz.
Nikolai Medtner came of age in the most turbulent and dangerous of times in Russian history, when the political movements against the tsarist form of government reached full boil, leading to the 1917 Revolution. His long Sonata in e minor, Op. 25, No. 2, “Night Wind,” is a musical representation of a poem which contains words like “wailing,” “fury,” “plaintive,” “torment,” “frenzied;” those words and that mood could well describe the historical time in which he wrote. Like Russia itself, the music contains both Russian folk elements as well as Western European influences. Medtner clearly loved the Slavic side, composing musical “skazki” or folk tales that tap into the Russian peasant soul, but also utilizing German Romantic forms from composers like Schumann and Beethoven.
Russian folk songs are temperamental, with rapid changes in tempo, dynamics and sometimes key; those elements in “Night Wind” match Kenny Broberg’s own style perfectly. “Frenzied” is a good overall descriptor for this piece. I saw his two hands reflected in the piano panel behind the keyboard so that I had the illusion of four hands, and it did seem like there were four hands and two pianos playing, there is so much going on, from the very bottom of the keyboard to the very top. No note goes unplayed. The Russian wind must not just blow – whoooosh! – no, it is full of little eddies and currents that rise, fight each other, and fade out, only to rise again unexpectedly; the wind storm goes on and on without let-up. The difficulty of this piece is legendary. The player must keep up a lightning fast pace in both movements. The audience was left gasping, both in awe of the brilliance of the performance and in sympathy for how exhausting it must have been.
It was in the Bach Toccata in c minor, BWV 911 that I realized how widely Broberg applies his signature style. Bach is usually thought of as a “rational” composer in which the player hews to the designated tempo. While the toccata form allows more interpretive freedom than a fugue, Broberg gave us not (what we think of as) the 17th century version, but the 21st century millennial’s reading, with a lot more changes in tempo and dynamics than expected. The person next to me exclaimed that it didn’t even sound like Bach! It was a refreshing update.
The final piece, American composer Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Piano, op. 26, continued to showcase Broberg’s technical virtuosity: his comfort with speed, rapidly changing meters, dissonances, keys and dynamics. Like the Medtner, it is mostly “frenzied” except for the third slower movement. The only constant is change, and the listeners are kept on their toes trying to follow the thread through many diversions, including use of the 12-tone system in two of the movements.
Kenny Broberg is a young musician of extraordinary ability, who left the audience amazed, delighted, proud (In a parental kind of way!), and anxious to follow him on the next stages of his musical journey. He is the future of classical music. Bravo!
To learn more about Kenny Broberg, please visit his website: https://kennybroberg.com
Find out what’s new at the Kahilu Theatre here: http://kahilutheatre.org
All photos by Steve Roby.