Fort Worth — Bass Performance Hall was packed on April 7 as John Giordano changed his title from Jury Chair of the Cliburn International Piano Competition, a position he held for 42 years, to Jury Chair Emeritus. That comes out to chairing 11 of the 14 quadrennial competitions. For most of that time he was also the Musical Director of the Fort Worth Symphony and one of the leading musical faces of the city. The best way to celebrate his change of status was throwing a concert.
The Van Cliburn Foundation brought back seven of the past medal winners to do the honors. They were (with the year they won, all Gold unless otherwise noted): Haochen Zhang (2009), Stanislav Ioudenitch (2001), Jon Nakamatsu (1997), Joyce Yang (2005, Silver), Simone Pedroni (1993), André-Michel Schub (1981) and Vladimir Viardo (1973).
It was all music, except for some short introductory remarks, and all celebratory. We were spared the inspiring video retrospective and an endless procession of politicos and plaques. All of the pianists were there to play and there wasn’t a hint of the competitive nature that usually raises its head whenever there is more than one of them on the program. Here, we had eight amazing pianists, all of who had triumphed through the hazing of the Cliburn competition with Giordano’s kindly leadership. The sense of camaraderie created among them by this mutual experience filled Bass Hall with much more than music.
The closeness of three of the pianists was evident from the very first selection. In fact, Zhang, Schub and Nakamatsu sat down at a single crowded piano to play Carl Czerny’s campy arrangement of music from Rossini’s equally campy opera Il barbiere di Siviglia. They gave it a rollicking performance that set the lighthearted mood for the entire evening.
Moment of Geek: We are used to seeing two pianists at the same keyboard (cleverly called piano four hands), but rarely three at the same keyboard. There is a piece by Liszt (who else?) that asks four pianists to share one keyboard and, taking this to extremes, here is a piece for 12—count’em 12—pianists at one piano.
There was a lot of anticipation in hearing Vladimir Viardo (1973, Gold). He is on the faculty of University of North Texas but only after he was able to start his career over again in 1987 when Gorbachev lifted his travel ban. He played two Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs: Standchen and Auf Dem Wasser zu singen. His version of Stanchen was a lesson in bringing out individual voices as well as in elegant playing. (Liszt ruins the other arrangement by throwing in needless double octave passages to show off.)
André-Michel Schub (1981, Gold) is of interest to piano geeks, not only for his prodigious abilities, but also for that he is a pupil of Rudolf Serkin, forming a bridge to an earlier era of piano playing. He gave an excellent performance of Chopin’s Ballade No. 3.
Simone Pedroni (1993 Gold) is unknown to many in this country because his career is centered on Europe and his native Italy. His immediately endeared himself to the audience by walking out on stage in red patent leather shoes, a welcome touch of whimsy. The shoes were just the starter. He played two arrangements of movie music by fellow Italian Nino Rota.
Joyce Yang (2005, Silver), my favorite of the bunch, played Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas, Op. 2. She has a marvelous technique, but so do they all. What is different is that she lives the music and her interpretation of every note is visible in her body language. Few artists have such a personal connection to what they are playing.
The first half ended with a bombastic performance of the last movement of Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 for two pianos, complete with the tintinnabulation of the Easter bells peeling cross the nation. Viardo and Stanislav Ioudenitch (2001, Gold) gave it a ringing performance.
Jon Nakamatsu opened the second half with Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66. He is familiar, and much loved, to local audiences as a soloist and collaborative pianist.
Stanislav Ioudenitch continued with more Chopin, two of his waltzes. After that, he launched into Ginzburg’s explosive arrangement of “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Haochen Zhang closed the solo portion with some fireworks. His version of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice lit up the sky, as did his performance of Prokofiev’s Toccata, Op.11.
The program ended with Nakamatsu, Ioudenitich, Yang and Schub playing De Vilback’s arrangement of the Waltz from Gounod’s opera Faust. It was a lot of fun but stuck too close to the original. Some enhancements would have made the piece more interesting.
This was a memorable and enjoyable concert. Concerts today are all so serious with all of the fun flattened out. For example, Beethoven’s works are filled with jokes but you would never know it from the molto serioso way they are played. It is time to put some whimsy back into concerts. It may take a while for audiences to catch on and realize they can smile or (gasp) even laugh. But once they do, it could change the stuffy perception of classical music and expand its reach.