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Derek Bermel strikes a different chord

Posted 2:17pm on Monday, Oct. 15, 2012

Derek Bermel certainly cannot be accused of a lack of originality. He was the featured composer in the latest "Cliburn at the Modern" program in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on Saturday afternoon, and not only was his music strikingly different from that of almost any other composer, his pieces were strikingly different from each other.

The four works played included some virtuoso turns for several instruments, strange harmonic, rhythmic and melodic twists, much sly wit and, in every case, interesting detours off the main musical highway.

A pertinent example would be his Turning, the third work on the program. It could be described as a set of variations on "Jesus Loves Me." The children's hymn appears now and then in recognizable form, but it veers into very strange territory -- try to think of what Pierre Boulez would do with "Jesus Loves Me," if you can, and you'll get some sense of where one variation went. I think I caught a very brief reference to Scott Joplin, but maybe Bermel has a sort of hallucinatory effect on his listeners.

Anyway, the piece, for solo piano, was played very effectively by Shields-Collins Bray, the series' emcee.

Quite a bit different was Thracian Sketches for solo clarinet, which was played by Bermel himself. This is basically a long, occasionally interrupted crescendo that begins with about the softest sounds a clarinet can produce while remaining audible and continues to the final frantic measures. It's a virtuoso piece with an oriental atmosphere, and with it Bermel demonstrated his performance as well as compositional skills.

Twin Trio was a downright eerie work for flute, clarinet and piano. It was played by the husband and wife team of Jan (flute) and Andrew (clarinet) Crisanti, with Bray at the piano. This combination of instruments is unusual, and the interweaving of the two wind instruments, with comments by the piano, produced a haunting and continually eerie effect, especially in the second movement. It didn't sound easy, but it was very effective in the three musicians' hands.

The final work of the afternoon, SchiZm, was played by Bray and oboist Stewart Williams. The haunting opening movement was followed by an energetic second that included what may have been a very brief reference to Carmen. It was, again, an offbeat composition very well played by the two instrumentalists.

Cliburn at the Modern may never achieve the popularity of more mainline series, but for non-orthodox, stay-awake programming, it's the way to go.

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