Arts & Culture

Review: Tomoki Sakata at Cliburn Festival

After four hours and 17 compositions, Chopin has still not worn out his welcome. He’s the star of the first Cliburn Festival, which opened Thursday night and continues through Sunday in the Renzo Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum.

Five prize-winning young pianists are each playing a recital devoted exclusively to the music of Chopin. Mostly it’s solo piano material, though a few string players are stepping in now and then to assist with larger forms.

Friday’s instrumentalist was Tomoki Sakata, who had the evening to himself. Cliburn Competition enthusiasts may recognize his name; he was a finalist in the 2013 contest. He’s from Japan, though he’s developing an international reputation.

Friday night he impressed with his virtuosic skill, lyrical gift and demeanor at the piano. Lang Lang, who was in town a few days ago, could well take a few pointers from Sakata, who demonstrated that it’s possible to produce a powerful effect without engaging in pianistic gymnastics.

The pieces that Sakata played were on the short side, as much of Chopin’s music is. Some were well known, others not.

The evening began with the Nocturne in G Major, Opus 37, No. 2. Sakata’s playing of it was rather straightforward and calm, as befits the form.

The performance picked up energy with the Polonaise No. 1 in C-sharp minor, Opus 26. This was lively and more obviously expressive than the opening nocturne.

An even more energetic Valse No. 5 in A-flat, Opus 42, preceded the hugely familiar Ballade No. 1 in G minor, one of the very few duplications of the festival (Mariangela Vacatello played it Thursday night). The ballade had intelligently shifted tempos and dynamics and a final flourish that raised goosebumps.

There were four etudes, two of them (Opus 10, Nos. 3 and 4) highly familiar, two of them (Opus 10, Nos. 6 and 11) not. All were beautifully played, and Opus 10, No. 4, a whiz of a piece, had unusual clarity in Sakata’s light pedaling.

A muscular account of the Sonata No. 3 brought the evening to a magnificent conclusion.

The inaugural Cliburn Festival opened Thursday night with a performance by Mariangela Vacatello, a finalist at the 2009 Cliburn Competition and Allan Steele, principal cellist of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

They gave a strong performance of Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Opus 65. The second and third movements have some exceptionally lovely passages for the cello. This is a piece that deserves more performances.

Vacatello had the stage to herself for the rest of the evening. She was impressive throughout, melding spine-tingling drama with emotion-stirring lyrical passages. The ultrafamiliar Revolutionary Etude, one of three she played, established her virtuoso chops, and the four ballades were a series of convincing musical dramas.

The festival concludes Sunday afternoon. For information and tickets, visit