San Diego Spotlight : Home-Grown Pianist Finds Fertile Ground in Europe

Europe has often been an encouraging haven for American musicians. In the 1920s, nascent composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson made their mark in Paris, as did composer-writer Ned Rorem in the years after World war II. Singer Paul Robeson found acceptance on European stages after his outspoken political views made him a pariah in his native country during the McCarthy years.

Kevin Kenner, the pianist who grew up in Coronado and was the only American finalist in the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition, also finds his career blooming in Europe, where he has lived the last three years. The Van Cliburn Competition gave him some exposure here, but taking top prize in Warsaw's 1990 Chopin Competition set his European agent's phones ringing off the hook.

"I think the Chopin Competition carries a certain prestige in Europe that doesn't carry over to the U.S.," Kenner said in a phone interview from his London home.

In March, the 29-year-old musician made his Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel, and he just returned to London from Germany, where he recorded a solo recital of Ravel and Chopin for German television. Since the first of the year, he has played more than 40 concerts.

But, if Kenner's American management has not been as industrious in lining up concerts as his European agents have been, next week's homecoming performances with the San Diego Symphony should provide some consolation. Friday through Sunday at Copley Symphony Hall, Kenner will play Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto under music director Yoav Talmi. This will mark his debut on the orchestra's subscription series, although he played one of the orchestra's young people's concerts as a teen-ager in 1982 and soloed in Grieg's Piano Concerto last June with the summer pops at Embarcadero Marina Park.

Kenner said the conditions of the summer pops gig were less than ideal.

"It was cold, and my hands were complete ice. A wind came out toward the end of the concerto that blew right across my back. On the second evening, I decided to wear long johns, but that night it wasn't as windy."

Kenner, who acknowledged that the Beethoven concerto is a new work in his repertory, said the work's primary challenge is its paradox.

"Of all the Beethoven concertos, it is the most introverted and at the same time the most powerful. The pianist's challenge is to bring the audience into its introverted world."

Kenner and his wife, pianist Sonia Dembinska, settled in London because of her musical commitments in Great Britain. But the Coronado native keeps his California connection alive in the kitchen.

"Mexican food is our specialty. We bring the masa from the States and have a tortilla press. We make our own salsa--we can't live without it."

More changes at the opera. When it comes to putting the San Diego Opera in your date book, it may be best to use pencil. Two days after general director Ian Campbell announced a new date for the much-ballyhooed Luciano Pavarotti concert at the San Diego Sports Arena--originally Oct. 19, now Oct. 22--the company announced that German conductor Ulf Schirmer, the announced conductor for its 1993 "Don Giovanni" production, was released from his San Diego commitment. While Schirmer turns his attentions to the Vienna State Opera, Edoardo Muller will come to San Diego's aid. Already scheduled to conduct San Diego's first two operas of the 1993 season, "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" and "Madama Butterfly," Muller will remain for "Don Giovanni."

Harping for a good cause. San Diego Choral Artists will premiere David Ward-Steinman's "Seasons Fantastic" for harp and chorus on June 25 at the American Harp Society's national convention, which will be held June 23-27 at the University of San Diego. Ward-Steinman, composer-in-residence at San Diego State University, was commissioned by the harp society to provide the new work. Local harpist Marian Hays will solo, and Ron Gillis will conduct the work in the university's Immaculata Chapel.

Grace notes. Opera buffs flocked to San Diego Opera's production of "Carmen" in record numbers. According to opera management, they sold 103% of the Civic Theatre's house over the five performances. This means that tickets turned back by subscribers unable to attend were sold to eager new patrons. . . . the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church is bravely producing Benjamin Britten's sacred opera "Noyes Fludde" May 15-16. Music director Kenneth Fox promises a cast of more than 100 players in the tuneful Biblical drama. . . . The San Diego Symphony's Mother's Day tribute at 2 p.m. Sunday in Copley Symphony Hall will feature the 100-voice San Diego Children's Choir singing works by Vaughan Williams and Mozart.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

SONOR SCHEDULES ROUSING SEASON CLOSER

SONOR, UC San Diego's enterprising contemporary music ensemble, should close its season in a blaze of glory Wednesday. The program includes Rand Steiger's Double Concerto, a large work for two soloists and two orchestras, with percussionist Steven Schick and pianist Aleck Karis. Controversial American composer Frederic Rzewski, a visiting professor at UCSD, will perform his Piano Sonata, and George Lewis' "Nightmare at the Best Western" for baritone and chamber ensemble promises to send up Robert Bly's "Iron John" in great style.

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