Fort Worth — Piano nerds and musical theatre geeks alike got their day at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth with the latest from The Cliburn at the Modern concert series.
Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin have contributed some gems to our Great American Songbook. Each has been arranged by notable composers, and those were each featured by local and gifted pianists Saturday afternoon.
Cliburn artistic consultant Shields-Collins “Buddy” Bray winningly hosted the program and began things off with a Fred Hirsch arrangement of Sondheim’s “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods. An ethereal mist from the Steinway keyboard quieted the sold-out audience and developed into a touching melody. This song at the soul of that musical made sure this concert would start with heart. Interpreting music from musicals require a total understanding of character motivation and plot context. Even without vocalists to sing lyrics, the composers’ intention was respected. Bray’s self-immersion into the song’s core let his rubato and pedal-work be the storytellers. The universal language sung the songs.
After tasking the audience to think of melodies by the featured composers other than those on the program Buddy introduced Nathan Ryland to play another Sondheim selection. Delightful and frankly surprising, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company was arranged by Eric Rockwell into a tipsy ragtime that stumbled into a boogie-woogie that bonked its head into closing fistfuls of keys. Like the character of Bobby lacking direction in his life, Rockwell and Ryland stayed true to the song’s spirit.
The third Sondheim piece came from the pen of Ricky Ian Gordon and the fingers of Tarrant County College Associate Professor of Music Jeff Lankov. Playing from an iPad, Lankov maturely conjured a variety of colors from “Every Day a Little Death” from A Little Night Music. Soft multi-harmony sustains waved out of the piano body like a slow Leslie speaker turn. He expertly balanced composer’s intent and interpreter’s translation by inserting his will into the strings, drawing out Sondheim’s unique insight.
Bray next collected song titles from the audience of other “beloved Broadway” songs of the afternoon’s composers. Not yet guessing why.
The polymath pianist and composer Steven Hough’s setting of Richard Rodgers’ “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music elicited curiosity of what more genius there is in his paintings, religious writings and poetry. Jonathan Tsay, principal keyboardist of the Dallas Chamber Symphony, illuminated Hough’s brilliance as the “raindrops on roses” and “when the dog bites” melodies intertwined. The already eternally compelling and classic raw material of Rodgers’ tune was reimagined into a revelation. Rodgers to Hough to Tsay stacked talent upon talent upon talent.
An unexpected treat came from Professor of Collaborative Piano and Chair of Keyboard studies at University of North Texas College of Music Steven Harlos’ surprise guest appearance to mash-up the audience’s titles now become requests. Gershwin’s “S’wonderful” from Funny Face, Rodgers’ “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story and Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company covered all the composer bases. An improv comedy group might take suggestions from the audience to make up silly bits, but this was concocting on-the-spot soul medicine. A dose of pure amazement; this man is a human jukebox.
Julliard graduate Alex McDonald brought a graduated cylinder of emotion to Earl Wild’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” from Girl Crazy, and “Fascinating Rhythm and “The Man I Love” from Lady, Be Good!. It was deeper than lush and more timeless than merely moving. A true “Lovefest”.
Back for a last Hough treatment of “The Carousel Waltz” from Carousel, Bray introduced the magical Evan Mitchell like he described the brilliant Steven Hough as, “one of those people”. So many good pianists can cleanly change textures or draw a fast phrase but few can mold timbres like Mitchell. Across the piano’s entire register, he fashioned voices so fresh it didn’t sound like the same instrument of the last 50 minutes.
The Cliburn has done it again. A fantastic program, expertly executed and genuinely awe-inspiring.