Fort Worth — The Cliburn at the Modern series is best known for its composer forums. But Saturday’s concert, although it did include the work of 20th and 21st century American composers, instead highlighted several local pianists—as well as one guest.
The five DFW-based pianists on Saturday’s program proved the depth of musical talent in our area. Catharine Lysinger, Evan Mitchell, Jonathan Tsay, Alex McDonald, and concert moderator Shields-Collins Bray are all formidable pianists, though each brought his or her own temperament and strengths. The only non-local musician was 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Silver Medalist Kenny Broberg.
The repertoire on the program was all American, and with one exception, was from 1977 or later. That outlier was Broberg’s contribution, the Fuga from Samuel Barber’s 1949 Sonata for Piano, Op. 26. This sonata movement, which ended the program, was not the lyrical Barber that we recognize from, say, the Adagio for Strings or the Violin Concerto. Instead, this is thorny, unmelodic, but impressively complex, with as many as six voices. Broberg executed this immensely difficult repertoire with seeming ease, leaving little doubt as to why he was selected as a Cliburn medalist.
But the local pianists were also impressive—Catharine Lysinger performed Bernstein’s “Touches,” the commissioned work for the 1981 Cliburn Competition. Though the tempo indication suggests that the work is to have “a blues feel,” it is a theme and set of variations, all performed attaca. As with the Barber, for those only accustomed to the Bernstein-as-melodist of West Side Story or the Overture to Candide, this piece will come as a surprise. However, for those who know his more serious work, the musical language will seem familiar. Lysinger’s approach was sure, and she teased out a sense of line.
Evan Mitchell performed two brief pieces, Frederic Rzewski’s 1977 Piano Piece No. 4 and his 1981 “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” In the former, Rzewski uses the piano’s potential as a percussion instrument, asking the pianist to incorporate the entire range of the keyboard, as well. Mitchell’s showmanship and impressive pianism was an ideal fit for this repertoire. In the latter piece, Rzewski, known for inserting social commentary into his music, has the pianist imitate the mechanistic sound of the mill, beginning with two bass notes a half step apart and morphing into forearm clusters. While the piece does not explicitly evoke the despondent lyrics of the blues song on which it is based (“When I die don’t bury me at all/ Just hang me up on the spoolroom wall”), it nevertheless manages to suggest the workers’ oppression and the unceasing monotony of their work. Mitchell channeled this into a technically and musically impressive package—I can hardly imagine a more satisfactory performance.
Alex McDonald, a local favorite and 2013 Cliburn competitor, performed David Del Tredici’s Virtuoso Alice, one of several pieces Del Tredici has written inspired by Alice in Wonderland. McDonald is truly something special as a musician. His rich, expressive tone combines with a sure technical hand for Del Tredici’s experiments in late 20th century tonality.
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra pianist Shields-Collins Bray, who moderated the afternoon’s proceedings with informative good humor, also performed John Corigliano’s “Winging It,” a set of three improvisations that Corigliano notated from a year’s worth of daily improvisations in 2007 and 2008. The three ranged from the lyrical to the wickedly technical, and Bray was at home in both modes.
The real standout was Ensemble75 Artistic Director Jonathan Tsay. His brilliance and his comfort in a variety of musical languages shows why he is a sought-after musician in DFW and beyond. He delighted the audience with Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude and Aaron Jay Kernis’ Superstar Etude No. 1, which culminated with a set of forearm clusters as Tsay shouted, “Oooh, Baby!” repeatedly.
So much for staid classical concerts.