It was a chore to get to the Cliburn at the Modern concert on Saturday afternoon. Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum sits right across the street from the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. The streets were clogged and the closest parking was a quite a hoof. However, the chance to hear National Medal of Arts/Pulitzer Prize/Grammy winner William Bolcom talk about his music, and to hear some selected pieces, was worth braving the crowded carnival atmosphere. Walking into the sedate museum and the intimate concert hall was like entering another world entirely.
Although the event was supposedly sold out, the summerish weather meant that there were some empty seats as ticket holders opted for the golf course. But, they made a mistake. It was a terrific concert. Bolcom was witty, personable and informative and the music making was world class.
The program opened with the first of two lagniappes. Fort Worth Symphony bass player Brian Perry played an unlikely arrangement of Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag for bass and piano. You almost never hear the stings of the bass used in a solo capacity, even though there are some quite respectable concerti for the instrument. Perry did a fine job in making the arrangement and in playing the piece.
The official start of the program was Black Max and Radical Sally, two of Bolcom’s 24 Cabaret Songs, sung by mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle. The New York City Opera star made a dramatic entrance holding the train of her off-the shoulder brown evening gown. It was a bit much for a Saturday afternoon in Cowtown but it fit her outsized personality. She also included two cabaret songs by Joseph Kozma, who Bolcom has always sited as a model for his. She started Kozma’s Les feuilles mortes in French but sang the chorus in English and we all recognized the song "Autumn Leaves."
Two string Octets were also on the program; one by Bolcom and the other by Darius Milhaud, his mentor and teacher. The Milhaud was a bizarre piece that was made up of two independent string quartets that could be played separately but were intended to be played simultaneously. We heard the last movement. Bolcom had the string players play a few minutes of both quartets individually so that we could better follow the combination, but it was a hopeless cause. All eight of the string players played almost all of the time so, even with careful attention to the bows, it was hard to separate out the two quartets. Perhaps with more hearings this would be possible. It was an idea that sounded better than it turned out, I fear.
Bolcom’s Octet was a different matter. It is a wonderful piece from start to finish. There is a wide variety of musical styles and textures; from beautiful and widely spaced chords in the third movement to a ferocious second movement. Both Octets were performed by quartets from the University of North Texas, one made up of the faculty and the other of students.
The final work on the program was a song cycle for voice and an instrumental ensemble, The Hawthorne Tree. This piece was written for Castle, so it perfectly fit her unique manner of dramatic renditions. A song is really a mini-opera when Castle sings it. She is perfectly willing to sacrifice vocalization for dramatic effect. Once again, Bolcom employs a wide range of musical language and vocal techniques and Castle took full advantage of the opportunities he incorporated in the cycle for her abilities to really sell a song. The instrumental ensemble was from the faculty of the University of Kansas.
We were then treated to lagniappe number two. Aaron Kurz, a 15-year-old prodigy from Dallas, played one of Bolcom’s Nine Bagatelles, which were written for the final round of the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1997. It is a blizzard of notes and Kurz did an admirable job of it. He obviously has a bright future.
Upon leaving the museum, we were all unceremoniously dumped right back to the rodeo crowds. A guy in a truck rolled down his window and shouted "Is this the Cowgirl Museum?"