For American pianist Kenny Broberg, the final round of the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition – which saw him perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 25 and Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No 2 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – feels like a long time ago. “So much has happened in my life since then,” he tells Limelight. “I’m playing a lot more now and I’ve matured a lot as a musician in that time.”

Kenny BrobergKenny Broberg. Photo © Jeremy Enlow, The Cliburn

Since placing fourth in the competition in Sydney, Broberg has gone on to win the Silver Medal at the Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2017 and Third Prize in the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition, held in Moscow in June. He’s returning to Australia not to compete, however, but to tour concerts across New South Wales and Victoria. So how different are the demands of touring compared with those of international competitions?

“I try to approach everything all the same,” he says. “That’s easier said than done.”

Ultimately, for the pianist, it’s all performance. “You’re playing music for people,” he says. “Competitions are a little bit more stressful – and sometimes that can be a good thing – but you know sometimes I feel more freer in a normal concert situation. And I feel like I can open myself up better.”

Treating both scenarios the same is also a way to deal with the high pressure of elite competitions. “It’s important for me to remember that regardless of whether I’m playing in front of 150 people or whether I’m playing in front of 10 million people over the Internet, I’m still the same person, and I’m still the same musician,” Broberg says. “When I sit down at the piano it’s exactly the same, it’s the same thing I do every day. And for me that’s a comforting thought.”

So how does he unwind after performing? “Usually after I perform I’m just tired, I just want to eat and sleep,” he says. “And usually the better I played, the more tired I am – I know that I’ve played well if I’m exhausted afterwards, I’ve given everything I’ve got.”

When I speak to him, it’s only a couple of weeks since the finals of the Tchaikovsky Competition and the post-competition gala concerts that followed. For Broberg, the competition was a positive experience, not least because it was his first time in Russia. “So that’s obviously a big deal for me, and a very new experience,” he says. “But it was amazing playing in that famous hall, in the Moscow Conservatory, where so many of the composers whose music I was playing had performed.”

As far as his performances in the competition went, the pianist is happy, but not without reservations. “It’s the same as it always is, there’s always things to improve on, and you can always do better,” he says. “I’m extremely critical of myself, so when I listen back to my playing I always hear so many things that need improvement, and need to be fixed. But that’s a good thing, because if I listen to myself and though that it sounded great, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

The Tchaikovsky Competition this year made headlines when one of the finalists, Chinese pianist Tianxu An, crashed out of the finals when an administrative error saw the pianist take the stage with a different performance order in mind to the orchestra, only realising what had happened when the orchestra started playing Rachmaninov instead of Tchaikovsky. He was offered a second chance at his program, but declined, and the Tchaikovsky Competition released a statement saying the staff member of the orchestra responsible had been fired. The competition upset “didn’t affect me at all,” says Broberg, who took the stage two days later for his own finals performance. “I wasn’t watching. I sort of heard something about it because a lot of people were talking about it.”

It wasn’t all high-stakes competition and on-stage drama, however, with Broberg also able to experience a bit of the country while he was in Russia. “I was actually there about a week and a half before the competition because I’d set up some concerts so I could get adjusted to the time switch and just adjusted to being in Russia,” he says. “I went to some provincial places in Russia and also to St Petersburg – and we were in St Petersburg after the competition for one of the gala concerts for the winner – so I actually did quite a bit of Russia.”

He describes the audiences in Russia as warm and enthusiastic. “More than in other parts of the world,” he says. “And very interested to see me as an American pianist playing their music, sort of curious, I think.”

Broberg didn’t get to see as much of the locale when he visited Sydney. “I’m looking forward to seeing the country for the first time,” he says. “When I came to Australia three years ago, really all I saw was the inside of a practise room and the inside of the Sydney Opera House – which is pretty great, but I’m looking forward to travelling all over the country and seeing so many things that I’ve never seen before.”

On the Australian tour, Broberg will be performing music he took to the Tchaikovsky. “It’s sort of what I had in my fingers,” he says. “But more than that there’s a lot of really great music.”

He’s particularly excited about Nikolai Medtner’s Piano Sonata Op. 25, No 2, named Night Wind for a line in Tyutchev’s poem Silentium! “This Sonata, I think, is one of the greatest Sonatas that we have in the piano literature,” he says. “It hasn’t been played very often, because Medtner is a composer who’s still being discovered in great part [thanks] to some very fine Australian pianists, such as Geoffrey Tozer.”

“It’s not played because it’s so hard, and it’s a challenge for both the performer and the listener,” he says. “It’s a good 35 minutes of playing without stopping, and it’s very dense, very complicated music, and it’s very chaotic. But once you actually study it and really get into the music, it absolutely makes all the sense in the world. And the construction of it and the emotional range of it is just absolutely at the pinnacle of human achievement.”

Kenny Broberg tours Australia from August 17 to September 8


Find out how you could win tickets to his Sydney and Melbourne concerts here