World-renowned Pianist Sean Kennard Shares one of His Latest Recordings - Chopin 24 Preludes.
“America still produces superb pianists, and one is Sean Kennard,” proclaimed Limelight Magazine in their rave review of Kennard’s debut album. His “moving and musically satisfying [The Strad]” performances and recordings have been acclaimed all over the world for their “exceptional agility, nuance and power [Gramophone],” “powerful and involved music making [The Washington Post],” and “penetrating sense of structure…infectious sense of fun…full of life and sparkle [Fanfare].” Renowned pianist Richard Goode described Kennard as “an extraordinary pianist, one of the most gifted I have ever heard…a most natural and unaffected performer, who conveys a calm authority even while whipping up a storm,” while American Record Guide has praised his “perfect blend of lyricism and romantic passion, huge romantic sound, and bold melodic vision.”
Sean Kennard’s accolades include top prizes and audience choice awards in numerous competitions such as the Queen Elisabeth (Belgium), The Vendome Prize (Portugal), Sendai International (Japan), Viña del Mar International (Chile), Hilton Head International (USA), and National Chopin (USA). He has appeared as soloist with orchestras around the world including the Prague Radio Symphony, Japan’s NHK Chamber Orchestra, Osaka Symphony, and Yomiuri Nippon Symphony, the National Orchestra of Belgium, Chamber Orchestra of Frankfurt, Morocco Philharmonic, Chile Symphony, Uruguay’s Montevideo Philharmonic, and many others. Pianist of Trio Barclay, ensemble-in-residence of Irvine Barclay Theater, he also performs solo and chamber recitals throughout Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States. His discography includes highly acclaimed solo and chamber music releases on Naxos, Delos, and Centaur.
Dr. Sean Kennard, a Steinway artist, is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music where he won the institution’s prestigious Sergei Rachmaninoff Award, the Juilliard School, Mannes College, and Yale University having studied with teachers including Boris Berman, Richard Goode, Enrique Graf, Jerome Lowenthal, and Robert McDonald. He was named a Harvey Fellow of the Mustard Seed Foundation in 2014, and in 2017 joined the faculty of Stetson University as head of the piano area in the School of Music.
Thank you so much for joining us on our interview series, Sean. Can you share the backstory that led you to this career path?
Thank you very much for the invitation. I grew up in Hawaii, where I was homeschooled starting from 2nd grade. As part of my education, my parents taught me to read music and I began learning by myself on our digital piano. I loved the piano and progressed quickly, so at age 10, I began lessons with Ellen Masaki, Hawaii’s top preparatory instructor. My grandmother believed that God was leading her to buy me a grand piano, and I am grateful that I was provided with a Steinway B only a few months after I began lessons. I am fortunate that I knew I wanted to be a pianist shortly after I started playing, and gradually, through my teenage years, I came to believe that this was my calling from God: to play the piano to glorify him. Several decades later, this is still my calling, and has sustained me through both successful and difficult times.
Chopin’s 24 Preludes is such a profound, brilliant work that leaves a big impression. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
In the early 1720s Johann Sebastian Bach compiled twenty-four of his preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys into the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Chopin must have taken some inspiration from Bach—one of his idols alongside Mozart—as he embarked on his project of 24 Preludes in all the major and minor keys. Unlike Bach, however, Chopin arranged his preludes in such a way that they flow very naturally when performed as a complete set. We don’t often experience in less than forty minutes such a uniquely broad range of emotion, creativity, and inventiveness as Chopin infused into the tiny gems that make up this set. And they are radically tiny, ranging from 90 to only 12 bars long. Robert Schumann (at least during a certain time in his life) was unable to embrace this unusually miniature form. Schumann wrote in criticism of the Preludes: “I would term the Preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of études, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.” Yet others were filled with adoration, including Franz Liszt: “Chopin’s Preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams, and elevates it to the regions of the ideal.” Personally, I value them in terms of musical and pianistic achievement alongside any masterpiece composed. If asked what work I most love to play, I would respond that there are many, but I cannot think of any that would surpass Chopin’s 24 Preludes.
Your interpretation is phenomenal; What sparks the first idea to record this particular cycle?
I recorded Chopin’s Preludes in my very first solo album in 2011, which received good reviews in Fanfare and American Record Guide. Since then, I have grown as a musician and gained experience performing the 24 Preludes numerous times in recital. I have been working on an ongoing project to create videos of many different works that are special to me, and Chopin’s Preludes were my top choice to add to this project in 2021.
Chopin's preludes are a staple in the classical piano repertoire, but not every artist can show such a deep understanding of this work. Your playing captivates the listener and makes the musical experience unforgettable. Where do you find inspiration?
I have always been drawn to the music of Chopin since I started playing the piano. When I was eleven years old, I won the Chopin International Competition of the Pacific. The prize included a trip to Poland and the chance to perform recitals at Chopin’s birthplace in Zelazowa Wola and the Chopin Society in Warsaw. Among other works, I remember playing Chopin’s Ballade in G minor and Sonata in B-flat minor. After attending my recital in Warsaw, someone had suggested that I learn the 24 Preludes. I was insecure about my technique, though, and this gave me the idea to learn the Etudes Op. 10 and Op. 25 instead, which was my major project until I had the opportunity to perform them in Honolulu, my hometown, on my 13th birthday. Since then, I have continued to love and perform Chopin’s music. I find his way of relating to the piano captivating and completely natural. Moreover, to me he is one of the great composers musically, regardless of the instrument. I love his melodic and harmonic sense and contrapuntal skill, and his ability to evoke so many nuances of emotion.
Not every performance is as unique and personal as yours. What story do you picture when performing these pieces?
I don’t picture any specific images or concrete ideas when I perform, but I would like to share a story that shows a few reasons the music of Chopin is so personal to me. As I mentioned earlier, when I was 13, I had just learned Chopin’s 24 Etudes – which at this age had an enormous impact on my playing and technique. They also helped me to be accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music, which I began attending later that year. For the audition, I was asked to present two major works of Chopin. One of the works was the B-flat minor Sonata, and for the second work, I wrote “Etudes Op. 10 and Op. 25.” I remember Gary Graffman (who was at that time the director of Curtis) asking me at my audition, “Which etude have you brought? Did you mean Op. 25 No. 10?” I answered, “I know them all – which one would you like to hear?” He seemed surprised and unsure what to say, and responded, “you choose.” So I played Op. 10 No. 1, which was the first etude I had learned and the one I knew best. In the second round of the audition, the piano faculty were prepared to test me, so they asked for the difficult Op. 10 No. 2 immediately following the tricky finale of the B-flat minor Sonata. I can’t remember how well I played, but I believe the Chopin Etudes convinced them to accept me. The experiences I had at Curtis became the foundation of who I am as a musician, and I am immensely grateful to God for allowing me to have these kinds of amazing opportunities. I continued to love and perform Chopin’s music after I began attending Curtis, but I will never forget the important role this repertoire played in my early years.
Sean, what's next for you music-wise? We would love you to share your upcoming performances and career plans.
I am very excited to be returning in June 2022 to my hometown, Honolulu, as guest artist at the Hawaii Chamber Music Festival. I am looking forward very much to a special trio concert I will play there with violinist Stefan Jackiw and cellist Michael Nicolas. As part of the festival, I will also perform a solo recital and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12. In July, I will perform Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 at the Masterworks Festival in Spartanburg, SC, and teach on the piano faculty for the festival’s final week. Later this summer, I will be working on a new video project (more info coming up at seankennard.com). I have enjoyed playing a lot of chamber music lately with my two good friends Dennis Kim, violinist, and Jonah Kim, cellist, as part of Trio Barclay. We have a number of concerts scheduled for next season on both the East and West coasts, including at Festival Mozaic and will be premiering several new commissions alongside masterworks from the standard repertoire. Keep an eye out for our upcoming album “Trinity.”
Thank you so much for sharing your musical journey with us. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
Wishing you and all your readers the best as well! Thank you for having me.
To connect with Sean please visit his official website.