Fort Worth — Thursday night at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, The Cliburn launched a four-day, five-concert all-Russian series with a spectacular array of artists and a generous menu of repertoire. Opening night for Cliburn Festival: The Music of Russia turned out to be an impressive draw, with the 250-seat auditorium packed to capacity.
Besides celebrating Russian music with a strong representation of Russian performers, the event also commemorates the 60th anniversary of the triumph of the foundation’s namesake, pianist Van Cliburn, in the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. That’s a moment worth remembering these days, with Russian-American relations once again in crises mode, and the nuclear clock once again ticking at minutes to midnight (albeit in a different playing field). For, 60 years ago, in the dark night of the Cold War, with warheads aimed in both directions, Americans and Russians momentarily put aside their mistrust and mutual fear to rejoice together in the music-making of one lanky, miraculously talented kid from Texas.
Certainly this largely American audience could once again rejoice in the brilliant pianism of the first entry on the program, featuring Russian pianist Yury Favorin, a finalist in the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Favorin, who will play a key role throughout the festival, here applied his unique combination of steel-fingered technique to four movements from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty, as transcribed and arranged for piano by Russian Mikhail Pletnev. Favorin’s ability to coax a special brilliance from the Steinway grand married beautifully with Tchaikovsky’s lyricism.
The songs of Rachmaninoff, while not entirely unknown, appear infrequently on concert programs in America. American soprano Twyla Robinson displayed the rich, almost dark timbre and emotional control this music demands in a set of three of those songs, including “Daisies,” “The Rat-Catcher,” and “A Dream.” In this performance, “The Rat-Catcher” proved a particularly intriguing combination of humor and subtle depiction of Russian peasantry. Russian pianist Georgy Tchaidze, the second 2017 Cliburn finalist to appear on the program, provided the pianistic finesse these songs demand—Rachmaninoff was, after all, naturally focused on the piano, even in his songs. Indeed, in “Dreams,” the composer gave into his pianistic inclinations with an extended coda for piano alone, in which singer Robinson silently and convincingly held character as the piano took over.
Stravinsky nudged Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to the side as pianist Favorin returned to join violinist Jeffrey Dyrda for that composer’s Suite Italienne, an arrangement of sections of the ballet score for Pulcinella, which was in turn based on music of Italian baroque composer Giovanni Pergolesi. Here, Favorin turned his precise technique to the crystalline neo-classicism of this work, with violinist Dyrda supplying a light, fleet, energetic tone.
After intermission, Dyrda took his place as second violinist in the Rolston String Quartet (currently Quartet-in-Residence at Yale University) for a set of string quartet transcriptions from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young for piano. These quick, succinct sketches moved easily from piano to string quartet, providing engaging depictions of innocent emotions. A tendency to pause too long between the various movements was the one slight flaw in this performance—these short impressions need to follow one after another with very little interruption.
2005 Cliburn gold medalist Alexander Kobrin provided the grand finale of the evening in the form of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Kobrin’s reading of this deservedly enduring audience favorite opened with amazing use of pedal to produce piano sonorities; however, this strategy led to some smudged textures as the performance progressed. The final moments emerged, however, with powerful energy and produced an enthusiastic ovation.
The presence of so many great artists on the stage in a single evening was almost overwhelming, boding well for the remainder of the festival, which continues through the weekend with performances on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, and Sunday afternoon. One slight complaint: although the handsome program was nicely detailed, including song texts in both Cyrillic and English, the lights were turned so low that this essential material, as well as the titles of various separate movements, was invisible during the performances.