Fort Worth — This is the second year that the Cliburn has presented a themed festival. This year, the theme was American music, with five concerts in five different venues, each exploring a different type of American music in a variety of instrumental and vocal chamber works. The concerts featured the themes Americana, jazz, musical theater, Hollywood, and classics. Saturday evening’s concert, the Hollywood-themed offering, took place at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
One of the highlights of the experience: the museum’s galleries opened 90 minutes before the concert start time for ticketholders to peruse some art. The Amon Carter’s current special exhibit, “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” a beautifully curated exhibition that runs through May 1, explores the relationship between Benton’s art and American film. A can’t-miss painting for music lovers: Benton’s “Portrait of a Musician,” which depicts a double bass player—the focus of the painting is not the musician’s averted face, but his German bow hold. Without even setting foot in a theater, then, Saturday’s concertgoers were able to explore the juxtapositions among visual art, music, and film.
One downside became immediately evident upon finding a seat: because the Amon Carter, unlike the Kimbell and the Modern, does not have an auditorium, the concert venue was in an atrium area near the galleries. While the acoustics were better than I expected given the plethora of hard surfaces on walls and floors, the sight lines were a challenge. I am quite a tall person, and yet could not find a seat with an unobstructed view of the musicians.
The program began with John Corigliano’s Red Violin Caprices for solo violin, based on Corigliano’s score to the 1998 film The Red Violin and featuring Ertan Torgul on violin. Three things struck me initially about this piece: first, will this be my opportunity to write a sentence that uses the word “violin” four times? (Apparently yes!) Second, could Corigliano have written something slightly less impossible? The number of concertizing violinists who have sold their proverbial souls to the devil is vanishingly small these days, and correspondingly small must thus be the number of musicians who can play these Caprices flawlessly.
Third, how much mileage can Corigliano possibly get out of these tunes? A quick look at Corigliano’s list of compositions reveals the following: there’s the original film score. Also the Red Violin Chaconne for violin and orchestra, which also exists in a version for violin and piano. There’s the Red Violin Suite for violin and orchestra, and also the Red Violin Concerto. Again, for violin and orchestra. Then there are these Red Violin Caprices. If you want a little Red Violin in your life but happen not to actually play violin, well, The Red Violin: Anna’s Theme for solo piano is for you.
Oh. Yes. Ertan Torgul did a credible job on the Caprices, given their aforementioned infernal level of difficulty and the relatively unforgiving acoustics of the performance space. He’s a fine player, keeping technical difficulties to a minimum here and letting his lyrical side shine after intermission on Three Pieces from Schindler’s List, assisted by Kate Stevens on piano. Oh, here’s a fourth thought: any violinist who chooses music from film scores originally performed by Joshua Bell (The Red Violin) and Itzhak Perlman (Schindler’s List) is setting a mighty high bar, not that that’s a bad thing.
But also, there was some singing.
Fort Worth mainstay, soprano Ava Pine, wowed the crowd with Songs of the Clown, five Korngold songs to texts from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Her able collaborative pianist was Kate Stevens, who glittered when called for and retreated when needed. Korngold fits with the “Hollywood” theme of the evening because although these songs were not written for a film, Korngold was a well-known composer for American movies during the time he wrote the Songs of the Clown. After intermission, Pine and Stevens returned for a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that was somewhat less successful, although crowd-pleasing. There are many, many songs best sung by a sophisticated adult voice. This is not, to my ear, one of them.
Likewise baritone Jonathan Beyer and pianist Spencer Myer’s rendition of “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” from the 1955 film of the same title. The utter absence of irony in the lyrics: “Love is nature’s way of giving/A reason to be living/The golden crown that makes a man a king,” is simultaneously dated and charming. Beyer’s baritone is glorious, but he couldn’t quite manage to sing the lyrics unironically, though he seemed to be giving it a go. (Historical side note: the film depicted, unusually for the time, the fraught love affair of a mixed race couple: a Chinese woman and a white American man. Progressivism ended with the plotline, though, since the woman was played by actor Jennifer Jones in yellowface.)
Then some piano music.
Because it’s the Cliburn, after all, so there should probably be some music for solo piano. And there was, though not much: Spencer Myer played arrangements of two tunes from The King and I. Pianist Stephen Hough arranged Richard Rogers’s original music, to fine effect. Still, Myer is an exemplary pianist whom we certainly could have heard more of.
And, too, there was a string quartet.
A fine string quartet it was, at that: the Attacca Quartet, a foursome of young musicians who met at Juilliard in the early aughts, is a sophisticated group who seem comfortable with a wide variety of repertoire. Before intermission, they performed Bernard Hermann’s Echoes for String Quartet, a moody, evocative piece which has echoes indeed of Hermann’s creepy, dramatic writing for the films of Alfred Hitchcock and many others. The highlight of the evening, though, was Attacca cellist Andrew Yee’s excellent arrangement of themes from Star Wars for string quartet. (He knows how to give the inner voices something interesting to do, which is, alas, far from universal.) The arrangement is called, punnily, Star Wars: May the Fource Be with You. It was a fine way to round out a varied evening of Hollywood music.