Ko-Eun Yi

Review: 2015 Cliburn Festival: The Works of Chopin | Cliburn Concerts | Kimbell Art Museum, Renzo Piano Pavilion

Putting on the Chopin 

We review the five concerts in the Cliburn Foundation's The Works of Chopin festival. Added: Ko-Eun Yi and Adam Golka.

published Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Photo: WikiMedia Commons
Frederic Chopin

Fort Worth — Music festivals based around a single composer abound these days, but usually for composers that don’t lack exposure like Mozart and Beethoven. Such is the case with The Van Cliburn Foundation’s The Works of Chopin festival that opened on Thursday evening at the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion.

Of course, Chopin’s music is a mainstay of the piano repertoire and Cliburn is all about the piano. Besides, it should be thought-provoking to hear different pianists’ ideas about how this music should go. Furthermore, the Cliburn Foundation has an unlimited supply of young fantastic pianist at its disposal, from competitions past and present. 

Management is part of the prizes, so why not bring them here to play Chopin for a weekend? 

TheaterJones covered all five concerts; the reviews are below, written by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs or Zachariah Stoughton (the writer is noted beneath each entry).

Photo: Cliburn Foundation
Mariangela Vocatello


7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5

Mariangela Vacatello, who opened the series, certainly fits the bill as a fine pianist. She was a finalist in the 2009 Cliburn competition and took the Worldwide Audience Award. It is easy to see why. She possesses a formidable technique and solid musical instincts combined with an attractive stage presence.

The program opened with one of Chopin’s few works for other instruments: his Cello Sonata, which brought in the Fort Worth Symphony’s new principal cellist Allan Steele. She followed this with three Études and four Ballades—a finger-busting program requiring not only technical prowess but a big helping of stamina. She tossed off the most difficult passages with clarity and appeared as fresh at the end as she did at the beginning. 

The cello sonata was particularly impressive. This was Steele’s best performance to date. Previous appearances were marred by occasional intonation problems in the upper registers but that was certainly not the case on Thursday. He played with authority, producing a big resonant sound and a demonstrating a clean technique. Physically, he doesn’t move around much but he managed to work up quite a sweat. Likewise, although you could see every note in his face, his expressions were minimal and subtle; a welcome relief from showy overactive performers.

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs


7:30 p.m. Friday, March 6

Photo: Cliburn Foundation
Tomoki Sakata

The thing that makes the music of Chopin so interesting is its ability to reveal the thoughts of the interpreter. Whether the musician seeks an intricate and controlled or a wildly passionate rendering of the text, a strikingly contemporary mode of musical expression is possible. This would suggest that Chopin’s search for musical classicism yielded compelling results, not only drawing inspiration from the Bach family’s enormously influential and divergent idioms but also looking to the philosophical models of antiquity. Especially in the large scale works, his use of the concepts of classical rhetoric provide us a structure so carefully constructed that the listener forgets it is there.

Because of this disappearing structure, it is a tremendous challenge for a pianist to grapple with the music of Chopin. There are few technical challenges in the way we think of Liszt or Schumann whose giant leaps and dense textures are occasionally impossible on modern pianos. With an efficiently relaxed technique, Chopin’s writing will fit comfortably under the hand with few exceptions. Instead, his difficulties stem from the detailed and purposeful ornamentation of the underlying structures. When, for example, a particular theme returns, it is changed in the writing to represent the cumulative experiences of the alternating material to which the temporal theme can no longer be naïve. In this way, Chopin gives us an inevitable flow which is problematic when contradicted. But it is only the master pianists who can tap into this current; the rest of us simply try to stay afloat.

On Friday evening, the 2015 Cliburn Festival presented pianist Tomoki Sakata in the Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum. His program consisted of interesting groupings of works, sometimes similar and sometimes contrasting.

The first work was the Nocturne in G major, Op.37 No.2 which is often over-poeticized. However, Sakata gave us a relatively light and straight-forward performance. This was followed immediately by the Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op.26 which is passionate and direct in character. Here the pianist’s sound concept was a bit on the bright and harsh side. There was evidence to suggest that these pieces were new in his repertoire; some of the inner voices were a bit forced into our ears, and some of the dynamic planning was a bit confused or generic. But this did not eclipse a simple gracefulness and charm to the playing.

The same could be said for the Waltz in A-flat major, Op.42 which Sakata played with an ease that made it easy to listen. The sheer fun of the waltz came through without a need for any concealed motive. But it was in the larger works that his general approach became distinctive. In the Ballade in G minor, Op.23 that ended the first half as well as the Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 which ended the concert, Sakata continued a more basic, classical approach than one typically experiences in a performance of these works. What we expect is a mysterious depth of emotion or at least a pretending to create some drama. The approach we heard tonight consisted of broad, primary colors used for extended periods of time. This method used uncaringly could conceivably come off as being bland or simplistic, but Sakata managed to make a case for his interpretational decisions.

The only significant distraction from the music came from the instrument itself. The sound gave the impression of freshly lacquered hammers. It was somewhat percussive and uneven, especially in the high treble. Additionally, there seemed to be a problem with the dampers making noise during a slow release of the sustaining pedal.

A few brief memory slips reminded us that Sakata is still a very young pianist with an expanding repertoire (it is very difficult to learn new pieces while maintaining a concert schedule). But the pieces he performed which were focused on intention were indicative of an intellect capable of this music. Most importantly, however, was the fact that a personality and a unique means of approaching the music of Chopin emerged by the end of the recital. This is certainly a pianist to keep an eye on.

Zachariah Stoughton

Photo: Cliburn Foundation
Fei-Fei Dong


2 p.m. Saturday, March 7

The Cliburn Chopinathon played a double-header on Saturday. Fei-Fei Dong, a finalist in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, was up first and the Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum was filled with her fans. If they weren’t her fans when the recital started, they most certainly were by the time it was over.

Dong is something rare on today’s concert stage. She loves to play for us and that enjoyment radiates from her with every note. You felt like you are in her living room and she sat down to play some of her favorites for you over coffee. You also get the impression that she assembled her prodigious technical abilities for the sole reason of being able to play these virtuoso pieces for you rather than as an end in itself. When she bows after a selection, she flashes a big sincerely happy grin, reminiscent of a child bringing home a straight A report card.

Physically, she sometimes looks heavenward—as though the music is too beautiful to look at directly. Other times, she observes her fingers, as they fly up and down the keys, in amazement at what they can do, as if they were a separate entity. And fly they do. She has amazing facility. When combined with her penchant for lickety-split tempi, the effect is more of a blur than individual notes.

In fact, tempi indications are more like suggestions to her. She takes a very free approach, not just to the initial tempo, but she generously ladles a rich sauce of rubato over almost everything. Her performance of three Mazurkas caught the spirit of the Polish dance, with triple meter and wandering accent, but she frequently paused along the way to luxuriate in this phase or that resolution. Her very fast performance of the Grande Valse in A flat Major, Op. 42, was very exciting, but it brought to mind the amusing image of a film with ballroom dancers speeded up at least by a power of four. (Admittedly, Chopin’s use of dance forms was intended for the recital stage rather than the dance floor.)

The second half of the program was a performance of Chopin’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in G minor, Op. 8. This is a very early work, the composer was only 19, and his musical lineage from Beethoven and Schubert is quite evident. It is also one of the few works in his catalog that uses instruments other than the solo piano.

It is separated by his short lifetime from the Cello Sonata we heard on the first concert in this series. As such, it might have been more interesting, as far as seeing the progression of Chopin’s music, if we had heard this first. Nevertheless, it was good to hear two of his works for instruments.

In the trio, Dong’s love of rubato was restrained by the presence of the other two players. The last movement was particularly delightful as it hurried along. It brought to mind his Rondo à la krakowiak for solo piano and orchestra that was written about the same time. 

Fort Worth Symphony concertmaster Michael Shih and principal cellist Allan Steele were excellent collaborators. However, like other similar works written by concert pianists, the piano part is the star and Dong impressed throughout.

— Gregory Sullivan Isaacs


7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7

Photo: Ho Chang
Ko-Eun Yi

Pianist Ko-Eun Yi’s appearance at the Cliburn’s Chopin festival was disappointing to some in that she was not the previously announced Di Wu, who cancelled because of a wrist injury. However, it didn’t take long for her to win everyone over with her superb performance.

The first half of the program consisted of a performance of all 24 preludes in opus 28—one in each key, major and minor. Bach wrote a similar set of preludes, but with fugues attached. Chopin’s set is quite different in a number of ways. Chopin’s preludes are very different from each other and each explores a musical idea. Further, Bach’s are in chromatic order while Chopin’s go around the so-called circle of fifths. While Bach’s were obviously never intended to be played as a set, but Chopin’s variety and use of related keys makes them much more of a unit.

There is controversy among musicologists as to whether Chopin intended them to be played all at once, as Ko-Eun Yi did on Saturday evening, or to be used as short occasional pieces. Reportedly, Chopin never played more than a few of them in recital himself. Hearing them like this is a revelatory experience. The variety that Chopin was able to achieve while staying within the confines of such a short form is nothing short of incredible—a compositional tour de force.

Ko-Eun Yi gave each prelude its own careful consideration. One remarkable thing about her performance was the evolution of the fast passages from virtuoso displays to rippling effects. In Chopin, many of these flourishes are simply extended ornamentations. A very fast and complex trip up and down the keyboard frequently serves the same function as a simple mordant or turn. Ivan Davis, a great teacher, had his students learn the preludes skipping over the runs so that the continuity of the melodic material became ingrained in the interpretation, only then added them back in.

The Amphion String Quartet, enhanced by the addition of Brian Perry on the contrabass, accompanied the performance of Chopin’s second piano concerto. All this is well and good, considering Chopin’s modest writing for the orchestra. One wit quipped that it was written for a large guitar rather than a symphony orchestra. However, Ko-Eun Yi’s excellent performance was marred by the placement of the string quintet - completely blocking our view of the soloist.

The arrangement used was how you would set players for a piano string quintet or quartet. In that case, having the pianist behind the strings and hidden from view doesn’t really matter, but this is a concerto and the pianist is the star. No one could see Ko-Eun Yi give these excellent performances. It was especially frustrating because there is little of interest in the orchestral writing in these concerti while the pianists labored in the back of the bus. All there was to watch, except in the tutti sections (and the highly musical performance of the cellist) was the small string ensemble holding long chords. Put them at the side, or even behind the pianist, whatever—but in front? Although I seemed to be the only one complaining, you can only guess at what the reception would have been like if we could have seen the soloist. She was worth watching. 

— Gregory Sullivan Isaacs


2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 8

The Cliburn’s Chopin Extravaganza ended on Sunday with Adam Golka, a 26-year-old pianist who studied with the late José Feghali at Texas Christian University. In his introduction, Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis joked that Golka was an example of a pianist with a career who was not a Cliburn winner, but he failed to point out that his teacher (Feghali) took a gold medal in 1985. It might be interesting to research how the Cliburn influences spread from teacher to student and so on down the line considering the competition has been around since 1962.

Photo: Juergen Frank
Adam Golka

Golka certainly proved his worth as a major talent in his recital at the Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum. He displayed a sure technique and remarkable musical insights. He brought spontaneity to Chopin’s music that reminded you that Chopin’s gift as both a composer and performer was music for the salon rather than the large concert halls. Even his performance of Chopin’s second Piano Concerto, one of the composer’s few large-scale works, reflected an intimate quality to his playing. Yet, there was quite a lot of forceful and exciting playing mixed in with all of the sensitivity.

The program started out oddly with a set of five nocturnes, a musical form that Chopin invented. Golka played three of them and the other two were heard in a so-so arrangement for string quartet. This was because the Amphion String Quartet (plus a contrabass player) was in attendance to accompany Golka in Chopin’s second piano concerto, so you can suppose they wanted to do something by themselves.

Hearing Golka play his nocturnes, with Chopin’s overall simplicity created by an underlying complexity, only pointed up the paucity of the arrangements. By giving the melody to the first violinist all of the time, the arrangements sounded like little mini-concerto movements for violin and a three-piece orchestra. Moving the melody around, even it transposed down an octave, would have been more interesting. This effect was not helped by the rather shrill sound that first violinist Katie Hyun’s violin produced.

Like Ko-Eun Yi’s performance of the first piano concerto the night before, Golka’s marvelous performance of the second concerto was marred by the placement of the instruments.

Read what I said in her review above. Like Ko-Eun Yi, Golka was worth watching.

On his own, Golka delivered stirring performances of the Polonaise No. 5 in F-sharp minor and the Ballade No. 3. He never once over-reached or over-played, but he knew just how far he could go before crossing that line. This is something that cannot be taught: an artist has to feel it instinctively. Otherwise, it sounds like they are holding back because someone told them not to play so loudly or worse, that they play too loudly and don’t realize it or even worse, that they enjoy banging away.

Overall, the Chopin Festival was a resounding success. It was well-attended and gave the audience the opportunity to hear five outstanding young pianists playing works by the same composer. It is difficult to determine an artist’s individual approach to music and the instrument when you hear pianists play in succession but playing different repertory. Hopefully, the Cliburn will continue to offer such festivals including ones that feature the works of living composers.

— Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

  Thanks For Reading

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Putting on the Chopin 
We review the five concerts in the Cliburn Foundation's The Works of Chopin festival. Added: Ko-Eun Yi and Adam Golka.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs and Zachariah Stoughton

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