Fort Worth — On the afternoon of Feb. 16, a concert was presented in the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth by The Cliburn, as part of their Iconic Paris Festival. This event was subtitled “World Fair,” which took place in Paris in 1889.
The concert opened with the perfect piece to demonstrate the far-reaching influence that the event had on the history of music but failed to mention it. It was at this event that the young Claude Debussy first heard the exotic Javanese Gamelan.
The program notes and brief spoken introduction told us to listen for the gamelan sounds but did nothing to elucidate. More information, maybe even a minute or two of a recording, would have helped the audience realize its importance. This was the first time that Western composers heard music that is completely different from anything they had ever heard. Unlike the modal and diatonic harmony in common practice at the time, the Gamelan used the pentatonic scale and an odd collection of bells and percussion-related instruments. There wasn’t any form that is the basis for much of Western music at the time. This music is organized in discrete, repeated and overlaid rhythmic patterns with the higher note’s tendency to move faster than the lower ones.
I go into all of this because the first piece on the program was Debussy’s Estampes and the first piece of this suite is entitled “Pagodas.” It was the first work by any Western composer to adopt the gamelan sounds into a composition, ushering in the era of experimentation by 20th century composers that would both fascinate and repel audiences for decades.
Joyce Yang gave a definitive performance of Estampes, especially the aforementioned “Pagodas.” She brought out the various strata of music that is typical of the style, and played the pentatonic harmonies naturally, in a non-confrontational style. Throughout the three movements, she carefully layered the dynamics so as to accompany herself in the left hand while playing the solo line in the right hand. Yang brought this subtle yet flashy performance to a dramatic end with a flourish.
Henri Vieuxtemps was a Belgian composer and internationally acclaimed violinist who lived from 1820 to 1881. Since he was dead way before the Paris World Fair, which is the subject of this concert, it is an odd inclusion. This rarely heard sonata is not a great piece, but it is tuneful and shows off the distinctive voice of the instrument.
Moment of geek: Although Vieuxtemps wrote quite a lot of music he is remembered for his violin concerti and the violin on which he played them on, known as the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù. A number of past and current violinists have been able to borrow it for performances and its sound is, indeed, distinctive. It last sold in 2013, reportedly for more than 16 million dollars. Who knows what astronomical sum it would fetch today?
Violist Hezekiah Leung and pianist Dasol Kim did a fine job and made a good case for the piece. Leung’s soft-spoken sound is more violin-like, without the more cello-like overtones that some violists can muster, but he played with fine musical instincts, facility and excellent intonation. Leung, proved to be an effective partner, offering a well-balanced and sympatric reading of the piano part.
After intermission, Joyce Yang returned with another definitive performance. This time with some pieces from Edvard Grieg’s collection of 66 short piano pieces from his cycle Lyric Pieces. Her five selections were also excellently combined. Hearing them together, you might think that these five works were a complete cycle in themselves.
In the context of this particular program, I was struck anew by the French influence on the music of this Norwegian composer. These pieces straddle the World Fair timeline because they were started in 1867 and finished in 1901, although there is little of the seismic musical revolution that the event started.
Maurice Ravel’s magnificent Piano Trio ended the program. It was written in 1915 so the new harmonic language that Debussy brought from the fair is more assimilated and Ravel wrote in the standard forms, as opposed to Debussy’s amorphic structures.
This combination of piano, cello and violin is especially hard to score. The sonorities of the two string instruments and the piano are hard to combine in the equal fashion that chamber music requires. Ravel solved this problem by taking a more orchestral approach. Frequently, he kept all three instruments in different registers, mostly with the violin and cello a couple of octaves apart and letting the piano fill in the middle.
Pianist Louis Schwizgebel, violinist Emily Kruspe and cellist Jonathan Lo captured Ravel’s intentions perfectly and the composer’s genius was evident. It’s easy to hear why this is one of the most successful works for the genre.