Fort Worth — The finale of the 2016 Cliburn Festival, a Sunday matinee at the Kimbell Art Museum Piano Pavilion, benefitted from outstanding programming and even more outstanding playing. The first half of the concert featured the work of Samuel Barber, opening with two songs performed by baritone Jonathan Beyer. The first was Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” accompanied by the Attacca Quartet, and the second was his setting of James Joyce’s “I hear an army,” with collaborative pianist Spencer Myer. (An annoyance: the quartet’s chairs were left onstage during the latter piece, completely obscuring Myer’s hands and arms from view.)
Beyer’s ability to project and achieve consistent timbre across a wide dynamic range is particularly impressive, his phrasing and musicality were thoughtful in the Barber songs, and he is a charming, adept performer, well worth hearing again.
The Attacca Quartet returned to the stage for Barber’s iconic Adagio in its original version for string quartet. This young quartet is truly outstanding—even in the Renzo Piano Pavilion’s acoustics, which reveal every errant sound and tiny bow bobble that string players make, they managed to avail themselves well on this, one of the few American warhorses.
Other Barber compositions on Sunday’s program included the Cello Sonata. Musicians were Fort Worth Symphony Principal Cello Allan Steele and first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner Ralph Votapek, who ably represented the new and old guard. This piece is not performed frequently enough, but Steele and Votapek made a case for it. Steele exhibits sure and confident technical facility, although his sound lacks a full range of tonal colors. Votapek played with vigor and commitment, effectively balancing Steele’s sound.
Most of the excitement came after intermission, though.
The reliably delightful Ava Pine, accompanied by pianist Kate Stevens, gave listeners three songs by Charles Ives, beginning with “At the river,” his setting of the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River?” by Robert Lowry. This is some of the quirky, iconoclastic Ives’s most accessible music, and, regrettably, his only representation in the five-concert festival.
The Cliburn name is inextricably connected to the piano, and Sunday’s concert brought us four pianists in total. Two of them, Kate Stevens and Ralph Votapek, performed collaboratively on this concert, but Spencer Myer and Henry Kramer each had a solo turn, and both wowed listeners. Spencer Myer’s performance of Copland’s “Piano Variations” served as a delightful reminder that Copland had a considerable output of abstract music, as well as the representational music such as Rodeo and Billy the Kid with which most listeners are familiar. Myer’s remarks about the piece were brief and helpful, explaining that the piece is in a “twelve-tone style”—it actually uses a seven-note row in its main theme. His playing, though—his playing was transfixing. In less capable hands, this music could seem like a mere exercise in complexity. Meyer, though, produced interesting lines, varied sonorities, and ringing overtones.
Not to be outdone was pianist Henry Kramer in his performance of Lowell Liebermann’s “Gargoyles” for solo piano. The first movement, marked “Presto,” gets down to business almost immediately with astonishing pyrotechnics and rhythmic complexities (seven against six and ten against six in one two-measure run). Kramer was easily up to this daunting task. Behind his boyish face and dapper bow tie lies a formidable skill set. His technique is dazzling, he produces a wide range of tonal colors, but he also crafts phrases of great lyric sensitivity when called for.
Outstanding musicians and glorious American music made this series one not to be missed. There will not be a Cliburn Festival next year—the Cliburn has its big piano competition to host. But I hope that in 2018 there is a return of this festival, with as much excellent playing and programming as listeners heard this year.