Performing Arts

Park U’s Kenny Broberg on life after Van Cliburn: Being the best pianist he can be

The Park University campus is quiet. A gentle breeze rustles the trees, and a few car engines hum as they drive by toward Parkville’s small downtown.

But suddenly, a rich flurry of notes spills from a piano inside the Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel.

Abruptly, it stops.

“I go a week without playing, and I feel like I don’t know how,” says Kenny Broberg, glaring at the keys, reprimanding himself.

The 23-year-old Park University graduate student is one of the best young classical pianists in the world, winning the silver medal in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas, the competition whittles contestants down from a field of 140 from around the world. Thirty are chosen to perform over an intensive three-week competition with four elimination rounds.

It’s a grueling experience. Broberg would perform, practice for up to eight hours, and sleep. Then repeat.

There were parties, but he didn’t attend. The Minnesota native talks a lot about controlling his inner dialogue. During the competition, he blocked out thoughts about the other players, the elation of winning, the millions of people watching around the world.

He concentrated on the music, how he could pack each note with emotion and make the audience feel the music the way he does. Broberg crafts an inner world through mental repetition, practice and music.

Broberg kept a strict routine and before stepping onstage would shove hand warmers in his pockets and warm his fingers with a blow dryer (Broberg admits it’s more of a mental exercise than a physical one).

When the awards ceremony finally arrived, he was exhausted. Hearing his name called was the culmination of years of dedication, and the first thing Broberg thought about was his future — and the work ahead.

Before the final round, Roger Kugler, director of Park University’s International Center for Music, compared the competition to the Olympics. But unlike the Olympics, winning isn’t the ultimate goal. For Broberg, it’s the launching pad to a career.

Stanislav Ioudenitch, Broberg’s instructor at Park and winner of the 2001 Cliburn gold medal, says after winning he tried not to think too much about the grand prize and focused on building on that success — something he knows Broberg will do.

“You can only imagine how happy I am,” Ioudenitch says. “He can make a career. He is wonderful onstage; he has a lot to say. The main thing for us is to plan for his future.”

For three years, the Cliburn will provide mentoring and will help book Broberg in performances all over the country. Park will sponsor his first concert in Kansas City. A date has not been set, but the university is aiming for mid-September.

As the silver medalist, he was flown from Fort Worth to New York City for meetings with Cliburn agents and to discuss national booking dates.

He spent four hours in a room with a videographer and photographer for Cliburn marketing, which he said was hell.

He refuses to watch the promotional videos and doesn’t read the articles about himself. His mom will often call him and tell him the results of her most recent Google search of her son’s name. Broberg begs her not to, but Mom is proud and there’s no silencing that.

At the entrance of Park University, a massive digital sign celebrates Broberg. A black and white picture of Broberg playing at the Cliburn flashes on the screen — there’s a look of concentration and control on his face.

“I could do without that,” Broberg says. “I have this look on my face like, ‘I don’t trust what’s going on here.’ 

This moment captures Broberg: uncomfortable with the attention and highly self-critical.

Broberg walks off the chapel’s main stage and out into the hot June air headed to his favorite local coffee shop.

“Welcome to beautiful downtown Parkville,” says Broberg, gesturing toward the small business storefronts as he walks. “This is as good as it gets.”

Broberg slyly grins, half-joking, but quickly grows more serious. Parkville’s quiet is one of the big reasons he wants to make the Kansas City suburb his home base for the foreseeable future.

Gripping a large iced London Fog in the upstairs of a small Parkville coffee shop, Broberg shifts uncomfortably in his seat when asked about what he wants his legacy to be and what sets his sound apart. (His teachers say it’s his deep emotional connection with the music). But he’s quick to point out the flaws in his work.

He says when he watches videos of himself playing, he sees every missed note, the failures to communicate emotion and to capture the nuance of every sound. He just wants to be the best piano player he can be and wants to make a living playing for others.

He quickly pivots the conversation off of himself to describing the problems with the digitized production of classical music and Rachmaninoff’s emotional openness. He finishes by declaring he was born in the wrong century.

An air conditioner rattles behind his head, and King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” begins to play.

“I always have music going on in my head, like right now I am thinking about a Mozart piece — I can’t stop it. It’s like a switch that’s always on.”

On the walk back toward campus, Broberg’s shoulders seem to relax as we get closer to the stained glass windows of the large stone chapel. The questions are over, and he gets to slip back into the small basement practice rooms — into the music of his mind.

Jacob Gedetsis: 816-234-4416, @jacobgedetsis