The Van Cliburn Foundation, which has steadily increased its activities through the years, introduced something new on Thursday night: the first annual Cliburn Festival.
This is a series of programs built around a unifying theme: in this case, the music of Chopin. Thursday’s was the first of five recitals that will continue through Sunday in the auditorium of the Renzo Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum.
In future years the focus will be on other composers, though the unifying theme will not necessarily be the music of a single musician.
It may seem a little risky to play the music of just one composer in five recitals over four days — that’s about 10 hours overall — but Chopin was so fertile a creator and so popular with audiences that the risk is lowered.
A glance at the schedule over the next few days shows that the Cliburn organization is aiming for variety — even Chopin wrote some obscure works, and those will be mingled with the warhorses to widen the audiences’ perspective.
One of the obscure works opened the festival. This 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 favorite award at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition.
They gave a strong performance of the sonata. There were times in the first movement when the pianist veered toward a dominating role (she can turn on the power when she wants to), but the remaining three movements were better adjusted, partly because Steele is a powerful performer himself.
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 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.
There will be more Chopin notes — thousands of them — before the last one is played on Sunday afternoon.