Van Cliburn

Encore! Damon Gupton returns to Bass Hall to conduct Cliburn finals

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra performs "A Night at the Oscars" with guest conductor Damon Gupton.
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra performs "A Night at the Oscars" with guest conductor Damon Gupton. Special to the Star-Telegram

Damon Gupton swears he’s not just trying to butter everyone up before he comes back to town.

The actor/musician, who will serve as conductor during Saturday’s final round of the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, has only the best things to say about the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Bass Hall and the city’s music lovers.

Gupton got to know them all well in January when he was the guest conductor for a showcase of Oscar-caliber movie music. He was invited back for the Cliburn Competition after Jacomo Rafael Bairos dropped out as the conductor.

Gupton, who’s in the middle of shooting a new TV series for Amazon, says it “got a little hairy” figuring out how to fit Fort Worth into his schedule. But he was determined to make it happen, in large part because his first experience with the FWSO at Bass Hall was so satisfying.

The competition, open to nonprofessional pianists age 35 and older, will have narrowed its field from 68 preliminary competitors to six finalists for Saturday’s big finish at Bass Hall.

All six will play one movement of a concerto with Gupton and the FWSO, beginning at 3 p.m.

Gupton was assistant conductor of the Kansas City Symphony from 2006 to 2008 and a conducting fellow with the Houston Symphony before that. He has served as guest conductor with orchestras in Cleveland, Baltimore, San Diego, San Antonio, Tokyo and Monte Carlo.

We chatted with him last week about what’s in store.

What turned you on about the Cliburn Competition and made you eager to come back here for it?

The purpose of this competition is pretty special, all these people from different walks of life coming to perform. They don’t do this as a profession, yet they have such great heart and passion and skill.

The fact that they don’t often get to make this music happen on this scale, i.e. playing with a professional orchestra, makes it even more special to be contributing.

Some of this repertoire is definitely more challenging than the arrangement for, say,

conductor Damon Gupton

The material will be different this time: classical music instead of movie themes. Does that fact change what you do in any way? Or do you still just crack your knuckles and walk out there?

There are different challenges. Some of this repertoire is definitely more challenging than the arrangement for, say, Moon River, which is just three minutes long. It takes a different preparation level.

But the general process is the same. Just crack your knuckles — I like that you said that, actually — and get out there to accompany these wonderful talents.

Do you know what composers and what pieces you will be conducting? And how much will you get to prepare with the musicians before their performances?

I find out which six concertos are to be performed at 11 p.m. Thursday night, less than 48 hours before the finals, the same as everyone else.

All that can be done to prepare in the meantime is study all the concertos on the list, all 12 or 13 or however many there are. I purposely didn’t count, because didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the idea of it.

I’ve been studying them all, not knowing which ones I’m going to conduct.

conductor Damon Gupton

So I’ve been studying them all, not knowing which ones I’m going to conduct. That’s its own challenge, but it’s also its own reward, because you’re exposing yourself to a wonderful repertoire.

Are there any nuances or peculiarities that you discovered about Bass Hall when you were here the first time?

It’s a wonderful hall acoustically. I thought the hall spoke wonderfully. We were playing a lot of big music. So I will be curious to see some of the finer nuances of the hall when we’re doing Mozart and Bach, if we get to perform those concerti.

Before we say goodbye, how goes your day job as an actor?

I’m in the thick of it right now. I’m shooting a television show called Goliath, from David E. Kelley, the writer-producer who did such great shows as Ally McBeal and The Practice and Boston Legal.

It’s a show that has William Hurt and Billy Bob Thornton, an incredible cast. It’s a legal thriller that’s coming out on Amazon in October, so we are in the middle of that. I’m one of the lawyers.

There’s also talk of coming back to Bates Motel after the incredible season we just had, so that may continue as well in a few months. Things are busy.

So it’s nice to be able to squeeze in a little bit of Concerto Land into the madness.

Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition finals

  • 3 p.m. Saturday
  • Bass Hall, Fort Worth
  • $10-$60 (includes admission to awards ceremony)
  • 817-212-4280, www.basshall.com
  • Winners will be named at the conclusion of play, about 6:30 p.m.
  • The final round will be broadcast on classical radio station WRR-101.1 and webcast at Cliburn.org and Star-Telegram.com.
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