Arts & Culture

Review: Inaugural Cliburn Festival strikes a chord with Chopin lovers

Michael Shih, Fei-Fei Dong and Allan Steele play Chopin's Trio for a Piano, Violin and Cello in G minor, op. 8 in the Kimbell Piano Pavillion.
Michael Shih, Fei-Fei Dong and Allan Steele play Chopin's Trio for a Piano, Violin and Cello in G minor, op. 8 in the Kimbell Piano Pavillion. Special to the Star-Telegram

The Cliburn Festival, the first of what will be an annual event, was a distinct success last weekend at the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion.

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

Before the first note, my thought was that 10 hours or so of Chopin, even divided into five programs spread out Thursday through Sunday, was going to be a bit much. But the introduction of sensible arrangements, some genuine Chopin chamber music, and a large number of solo masterpieces with a variety of moods headed off any danger of ennui.

Adam Golka, one of two featured pianists who were not alumni of a Cliburn competition, gave one of the best performances of the festival with the Amphion String Quartet on Sunday afternoon. The pianist, a former student of the late José Feghali at Texas Christian University, was ever alert to his partners’ needs and contributed greatly to a lyrical and dramatic masterpiece that was engrossing throughout.

He was also in fine form in his solo part of the program. His pieces were three nocturnes (which were alternated with the string players’ nocturnes), a polonaise and a ballade. Highlights were the Ballade No. 3 and the Polonaise No. 5 — the latter a powerful, spine-tingling drama.

The other non-Cliburn Competition pianist was Ko-Eun Yi, who played Saturday night. She was playing under a handicap that she easily surmounted. The scheduled performer, Di Wu, had to cancel because of a wrist injury. Yi substituted on very short notice and even agreed to play the exact program that Wu had planned: the 24 preludes and the Piano Concerto No. 1.

She seemed confident through the wide-ranging moods of the preludes, which contain some very popular music.

She was joined by the Amphion String Quartet and bassist Brian Perry for an arrangement of the Concerto No. 1, which is usually for a full orchestra. This was OK as an experiment, but the piano proved strongly dominant and the strings (who played quite well) lacked the heft for a truly balanced performance. There was an identical setup with Golka the next day for Chopin’s first concerto, and the Sunday arrangement worked better, especially in the balance between the piano and the strings.

Tomoki Sakata, a finalist in the 2013 contest, impressed with his virtuosic skill, lyrical gift and demeanor at the piano. (“Rock star” pianist Lang Lang, who was in town a week earlier, could well take a few pointers from Sakata, who demonstrated that it’s possible to produce a powerful effect without engaging in pianistic gymnastics.)

His performance 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.

A muscular account of the Sonata No. 3 brought Sakata’s performance to a magnificent conclusion.

One of the obscure works of the festival was the Cello Sonata in G minor, Opus 65. The performers were Allan Steele, principal cellist of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Mariangela Vacatello, a finalist and winner of the Audience Award at the 2009 Cliburn. They gave a strong performance.

The sonata is one work that might baffle the entrants in a guess-the-composer contest. For one thing, Chopin — the ultimate pianist — actually gives the cello a lot to do. And the work seems slightly off-style for the Polish composer.

One thing that’s a giveaway is the multitude of fine melodies. The second and third movements have some exceptionally lovely passages for the cello. This is a piece that deserves more performances.

Vacatello was impressive in her solo work, too, melding spine-tingling drama with emotion-stirring lyrical passages. The ultrafamiliar Revolutionary Etude, one of three she played, established her virtuoso chops, and four ballades were a series of convincing musical dramas.

Fei-Fei Dong, whom the audience obviously remembered from 2013, when she was a finalist in the Cliburn Competition, received the most enthusiastic introduction in the marathon and charmed her listeners with a few introductory remarks. Chopin is her favorite composer, she said, and his small-scale works (the bulk of his compositions) are “microcosms of life.”

Violinist Michael Shih and cellist Allan Steele joined the pianist for another rare work in the festival: the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in G minor, Opus 8.

Though strongly played, this seemed less mature a work than Vacatello’s Sonata for Piano and Cello the night before. The first movement of the trio is dominated by the piano, with the violin and cello merely assisting. The second and third movements give the two stringed instruments some music of substance, while the finale comes closest to a well-balanced example of the form.

There is some lovely music here, but it’s easy to see why the work is not often played.

Dong’s account of Mazurka in G Major, Opus 50, No. 2, created a melancholy atmosphere that one could imagine reflected Chopin’s nostalgia for his home country. No. 3 was more heroic, though there were lovely passages.

Perhaps the most striking of all the short pieces was the Nocturne in D-flat Major, Opus 27, No. 2, a beautiful work beautifully played by Dong. There was subtlety in all elements of her performance.