Fort Worth — Sometimes locally grown is best.
Saturday afternoon, Fort Worth’s The Cliburn presented a wide array of contemporary American piano music at that city’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Within this montage of works by some of the most well-known contemporary American composers, the strongest offering came from San Antonio-born Robert Xavier Rodriguez, a member of the faculty at the University of Texas at Dallas.
The concert as a whole stands as an admirable event of the sort that should happen more often in these parts, featuring contemporary music in the classical tradition performed by six different pianists. Jeff Lankov opened the program with three movements from Rodriguez’s Caprichos, a set of five pieces inspired by works of classic Spanish painter Francesco Goya. The first of these, “La maja desnuda, vestida y otra vez desnuda” (“The Maja Naked, Clothed and then Naked Again”), opens with a seductive melody presented in naked (yes, naked) octaves, which gradually evolve into an opulently Lisztian rhapsody before returning to pristine serenity. “El sueño de la razón” (“The Sleep of Reason”), based on a nightmarish etching of a sleeping figure tormented by demons, features a lyrical ostinato surrounded by equally Lisztian figuration, while “Fandango de los duendecitos” (“Fandango of the Hobgoblins”), inspired by another grotesque etching, submerges a quotation from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in still more virtuosic pianism.
As handsomely advocated by pianist Lankov, these works by Rodriguez demonstrated total command of piano sonorities on the part of the composer as well as an ability to marry structural integrity with almost whimsical intellect.
Although the contribution by Rodriguez (who was present for the performance) provided the strongest section of the concert, the rest of the program proved equally engaging. Carole Leone of the faculty of Southern Methodist University performed a set of four Album Leaves from 2002 by Steven Stucky, who spent his teenage years in Abilene before completing his undergraduate studies in composition at Baylor, and who died in February at the age of 66. Obviously evoking the short romantic character piece, Stucky here exploited that 19th century concept as a vessel for 21st century sounds—most impressively in the third piece in the set, a sonorous chorale (makred Sereno luminoso), followed by a final fleet, impetuously pointillistic Presto giocoso.
Fort Worth-based pianist Shields-Collins Bray, who also served as emcee for the program, followed up with “In the Midst” by Ingrid Stolzl, a member of the faculty at the University of Kansas. Stolzl wrote the work for 2001 Cliburn co-Gold Medalist Stanislav Ioudenitch in memory of pianist Van Cliburn; it opens with three of the grand introductory chords of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Cliburn’s most famous signature piece) and immediately turns into a six-minute reflection on Cliburn and Tchaikovsky with a quiet close. This appropriation of familiar musical material in a modern setting gives the piece an Ivesian sensibility, neatly balancing concept with a succinct form.
Arlington-born Jonathan Tsay, who completed his undergraduate studies at Southern Methodist University under Leone, took the concert down a different path with two of 1981 Cliburn finalist Christopher O’Riley’s transcriptions of music by revered British rock band Radiohead. “Exit Music (for a film)” owned a cool, jazzy aura, while “You” took on a more thunderous, almost violent tone, translating the energetic passion of rock music into a classical piano solo.
Pamela Mia Paul, a member of the piano faculty at the University of North Texas, performed “Secret and Glass Gardens” by Jennifer Higdon, who has entered the front ranks of living American composers with highly coloristic orchestral scores—most famously, blue cathedral, which has become one of the most frequently performed works by a living American composer. “Secret and Glass Gardens” condenses that same dreamy focus on color while conveying a sense of momentum and structural integrity.
The most famous composer of the group turned up last on the agenda with John Adams’ “American Berserk,” performed by Evan Mitchell, who is already enjoying a substantial career as a concert and recording artists while continuing his studies with John Owing at Texas Christian University. This seven-minute piece embodies the expanded minimalism of the composer, creating a quality reminiscent of Prokofiev’s motor-driven piano music.
In the past, the Cliburn may have been susceptible to charges of promoting the exclusive adoration of dead composers and the promotion of media superstars. That has never been entirely true, and, in recent years, the organization has made bolder, more obvious moves to present and promote new works (including, in this concert, outstanding work by regionally based Rodriguez) as well as the regionally based performers who are the backbone of the classical music world. While the Fort Worth Symphony languishes because of management failures, The Cliburn is clearly doing its part to preserve Fort Worth’s now precarious reputation as a musical city.