Fort Worth — With the goal of portraying the “sweetness, passion, and yes, disappointment” of love and romance, The Cliburn’s 2019 Festival, called Iconic Paris, opened on Valentine’s Day with the works of four French composers from the Romantic and contemporary periods. It was a cohesive display of music from Paris’ Golden Age—a time of rapid intellectual and cultural development following the French Revolution, dating from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
Characterized by a prevailing sense of elegance and sensuousness, Thursday night’s program, titled “City of Love,” made for an excellent celebration of the holiday, while its execution was, if not whelming in any particular way, overall solid and enjoyable.
The Rolston String Quartet opened the first half with an effective arrangement of “Un bal,” the second movement of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. In its full setting, the work is a musical narrative that tells the story of a protagonist, known as “the Artist,” who has poisoned himself with opium out of desperation over an unreciprocated love for a woman. Rendering the piece down from a full orchestra to a string quartet, naturally, much of the instrumental drama is lost, particularly in this movement, which calls for a dominance of two harps in order to convey certain aspects of the plot.
Still, though, the quartet offers a satisfactory nod to the larger work by taking care of the main motifs, capturing the dream-like melancholy and mysterious excitement that characterizes this piece.
César Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major was also fine. Violinist Michael Shih and pianist Dasol Kim demonstrated marked individualism in terms of technical precision and creative interpretation, but their collaborative approach toward the work never really seemed to find its rhythm. Moments of brilliance and thoughtful dynamicism were offset by the fact that two distinct voices were carried through each movement.
There was a particularly dazzling moment in the Allegro molto, the fourth and final movement, of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C Minor, op. 15, which ended the program. Together, Luri Lee on violin, violist Hezekiah Leung, cellist Jonathan Lo, and Kim provided a whirling color that punctuated the evening with energy. The movement was distinct in character, with a middle section that marched with eeriness and a downwardly skipping motif that the players seemed to toss between each other like a hot potato, ending with virtuosic flourish.
The highlight of the evening, though, was the beautiful poetry and modest musicality of Francis Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire, a six-piece song cycle that details the dangers of love with heartbreaking clarity. Soprano Twyla Robinson, along with Kim’s piano accompaniment, provides perfect color and temperament to each piece—quintessentially French, with a tenderness in tone and texture that lent to long, expressive lines. Her glimmer provided a very welcome balance to the otherwise instrumental set.
As far as themes go, “City of Love” did well to make clear its aims and deliver soundly, and in the context of celebrating a time and sense of culture, you cannot ask for much more than that.