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FWSO fest celebrates Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Cliburn

The Russian Festival: From Russia With Love

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with pianists Sean Chen, Alessandro Deljavan and Beatrice Rana

• 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24; 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25

• Bass Hall, Fort Worth

• $16-$65

• 817-665-6000; www.fwsymphony.org

Posted 1:24pm on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013

At the heart of legendary pianist Van Cliburn’s worldwide fame and success was the parable of a young man who united two sparring nations with his playing.

The plot and the characters of that parable are well-known to piano fans and 20th-century history buffs: At the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Cliburn, a handsome 23-year-old from Texas, traveled to Moscow to compete in the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in the spring of 1958.

A Soviet pianist was supposed to win this contest — and the cultural superiority bragging rights that went with it. But Cliburn dazzled the judges and charmed the audience. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev personally approved his victory. Time magazine hailed Cliburn as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” He became a hero.

What might be forgotten in the retelling of the story for future generations of budding concert pianists, though, is a detail about the music: Cliburn won the Russian competition playing the works of Russian composers, beloved by Russian people.

As the story goes, Cliburn had been having a mythic love affair with Russia, in fact, since he was 5 years old and his parents gave him a book with a photo of the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. In 1958, Cliburn, indeed, went “to Russia with love,” and his affection for the country, its music and its people remained steadfast until his death Feb. 27 at his home near Fort Worth; even his funeral included music by Russian composers, sung in Russian.

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will honor the memory of Cliburn in its upcoming Russian Festival: the “From Russia With Love” concert series at Bass Hall on Friday, Aug. 23, through Sunday, Aug. 25. Each of the three concerts will include a Tchaikovsky symphony and a concerto by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff — concertos that Cliburn himself performed repeatedly and recorded to great acclaim.

“I know that Van liked these works [to be performed in the series],” said Fort Worth Symphony music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who will conduct the concerts. “So this seemed to be a fitting way to honor him.”

To further link the event to the great pianist, three competitors from the recent 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — silver medalist Beatrice Rana, Crystal Award winner Sean Chen and semifinalist and jury prize winner Alessandro Deljavan — will be the featured guest piano soloists.

“The stars just aligned,” said Harth-Bedoya, about the good fortune of being able to make the Cliburn pianists part of this festival.

The concert series is the latest installment in the symphony’s Great Performances festival — a weekend of concerts in late August that focus on a single composer, or on a musical or geographical theme. Last year’s festival featured programs of American composers.

“We come back from break and we want to be intensely focused on a topic or a composer,” said Harth-Bedoya in a phone interview as he hiked in the mountains of Wyoming, where he was conducting at the Grand Tetons Music Festival. “And at the same time, we want to give the audience a different experience. They can chose one concert if they want. Or they can take in the whole weekend and that fulfills a different goal.”

Catching up with the competitors

Helping Harth-Bedoya and the audience meet those goals will be three young people who are only a couple of months removed from running the grueling keyboard gantlet known as the Cliburn Competition, which took place May 24-June 9 in Fort Worth.

“After the Cliburn, I have been performing a lot in Europe, but I also had the chance to have some rest in my beautiful summer house in southern Italy,” Rana said.

The 20-year-old Italian dazzled Cliburn audiences with her elegant and assured playing, winning not only a silver medal but the audience award, as well.

“Of course, the competition [was] a very tiring and stressful experience,” she said. “But, at the same time, it gave me an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm for the next concerts.”

American pianist Chen did what you would expect a 24-year-old American to do.

“I spent three weeks back home in California enjoying the sun,” he said.

Chen will be performing the same piece, Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, that he played with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and maestro Leonard Slatkin in the Cliburn finals. The rousing performance was the last of the 17-day competition. The audience leapt to its feet almost before the final notes were played.

“The Rachmaninoff Third is one of my favorite concerti, if not my favorite,” he said. “I am always amazed by how many new things I discover every time I revisit the piece.

“With a new conductor, even more interesting things might emerge from the collaboration,” he said. “Every performance is different, and I am very much looking forward to working with maestro Harth-Bedoya, and performing in Fort Worth again.”

Also returning will be Cliburn fan favorite Deljavan, 26. The highly demonstrative Italian was a semifinalist and jury discretionary award winner at the 2009 and 2013 Cliburn competitions. He is a much sought-after music collaborator; critics at the Cliburn in May said his chamber music performance with the Brentano String Quartet set the bar for the competition.

Following the recent Cliburn, Deljavan decided against competing in a similar event in Cleveland, leading some to believe that he had soured on the whole idea of piano contests.

“Competing, it’s a stress too big for an old/young person like me. I really enjoyed my performance at the last Cliburn, and I really didn’t want to lose my five fans!” he wrote via email from Italy recently, with characteristic, self-effacing humor. “I’m so involved in what I do that it was a real mistake [to enter] two big competitions [in the same summer]. It is physically and mentally too much for me.”

All three pianists will certainly have their work cut out for them. But Rana may be facing a particular challenge considering that she will be playing Cliburn’s signature work on his home turf. His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was not only his first recording, it won a Grammy and eventually went triple platinum.

“It is a great privilege to play the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto in Van Cliburn’s hometown,” Rana said. “And, even if his recording of this concerto is one of the best known, I cannot be but happy to take part into this wonderful tribute to Van with one of his most beloved pieces.”

All three pianists said they are looking forward to staying with their Cliburn host families when they return for the festival.

“[All three of the] pianists were great at music-making,” said Harth-Bedoya of the soloists. “That’s what I am interested in. Not just playing the piano.”

The composers

Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, the festival’s two composers, share a great deal as masters of a distinctly Russian style of grand Romantic composition. And, despite the age difference, the men knew each other, crossing paths on numerous occasions during Rachmaninoff’s formative years.

Upon Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, Rachmaninoff was moved to write a piano trio, the Trio Élégiaque No. 2, in his honor.

But, ultimately, they were composers from two different worlds. Tchaikovsky grew up and prospered in 19th-century Russia under the czars.

Rachmaninoff left his homeland in 1918 and lived much of his life in the United States, becoming a citizen shortly before his death in 1943.

Tchaikovsky died in St. Petersburg; Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky was something of the last gasp of the 19th-century Romantic tradition in many ways, including his means of support.

In an era when composers had steadily moved away from the concept of patronage in favor of supporting themselves with performances and commissions, Tchaikovsky’s career benefited enormously from the generosity of one particular patron, Madame Nadezhda von Meck. She provided the composer with financial backing over a period of 14 years. During that time, the pair consistently exchanged letters but, astonishingly, never met.

The reason behind von Meck’s abrupt cut-off of funds in 1890 has never been determined with certainly, but the dominant theory holds that it was because she was outraged when she learned of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality — a secret the composer so desperately tried to keep that he even entered into a brief (and generally disastrous) marriage.

Yet, Tchaikovsky was always able to turn the personal and emotional anguish that abounded in his life into gorgeous music.

His numerous works for orchestra, such as the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the last three of his symphonies — all to be heard in the festival — are rich with heartbreaking melodies contrasted by moments of full-throated fury.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

That biographical detail of Tchaikovsky’s financial support stands in stark contrast to the decidedly 20th-century life of Rachmaninoff. One way to measure the differences between the two composers’ worlds is to know that Rachmaninoff was an avid car enthusiast — an invention that Tchaikovsky likely did not see.

Although Rachmaninoff, too, was born in the Russia of the czars, most of his life was lived primarily in the United States.

He and his family left Russia during the Russian Revolution and never returned. The departure was not because the family was directly political or too wealthy in the eyes of the revolution (Rachmaninoff’s father had squandered the family fortune). But it was privileged enough to have been perceived as being in the czarist camp, and Russia was no longer a comfortable place for the Rachmaninoffs.

This sudden move (all possessions were left behind to support the cover story of Rachmaninoff simply being on a concert tour) has led to the misconception that Rachmaninoff was an official outcast.

But, actually, his lifelong exile from the homeland he was said to have loved deeply was self-imposed. His works were banned for a few years in the early 1930s when, in a rare political moment, he wrote an editorial criticizing the U.S.S.R. But that was the only official action taken against him.

Unlike Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff could not rely on a patron. After fleeing Russia, he had to support himself by performing.

One of his primary motivations for composing was simply to have fresh material for his concerts. And it worked, because he was one of the most renowned pianists of his era. Among the pieces he created to showcase his extraordinary keyboard talents are his second and third piano concertos.

While the third offers some modern touches, both works abound with sweeping melodies and weeping passages that hark back to an earlier style of composing.

“I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien,” Rachmaninoff told an interviewer in 1939. “I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.”

A closer look at works in the Great Performances Festival

Friday, Aug. 23

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1

Year and place of debut: 1875, Boston

Debut soloist: Hans von Bulow

Of note: This grand work is considered to be Van Cliburn’s signature piece. He performed it in his history-changing victory at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Festival soloist: Beatrice Rana

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4

Year and place of debut: 1878, Moscow

Of note: This well-structured work was composed during the chaotic period of the gay Tchaikovsky’s sham marriage to Antonina Milyukova.

Saturday, Aug. 24

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Year and place of debut: 1901, Moscow

Debut soloist: The composer

Of note: The 1945 Frank Sinatra hit Full Moon and Empty Arms is based on one of the main themes in this concerto, as is Eric Carmen’s 1975 power ballad All by Myself .

Festival soloist: Alessandro Deljavan

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5

Year and place of debut: 1888, St. Petersburg (Tchaikovsky conducting)

Of note: The concept of “fate,” which Tchaikovsky said was an element in his fourth symphony, is the driving force in this symphony, as well.

Sunday, Aug. 25

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3

Year and place of debut: 1909, New York

Debut soloist: The composer

Of note: Much was made of the technical difficulty of this work in the popular 1996 film Shine. But pianists are quick to point out that all of the virtuoso works they perform are a handful.

Festival soloist: Sean Chen

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6

Year and place of debut: 1893, St. Petersburg (Tchaikovsky conducting)

Of note: Tchaikovsky said this symphony had a “program,” or story line. But he died (or, perhaps, committed suicide) nine days after the debut of the work without revealing what that narrative was.

Sources: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians; Encyclopedia Britannica; “Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music,” by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda”; “The Triumph of Tchaikovsky,” by John Gee and Elliott Selby; “Tchaikovsky: His Life and Times,” by Wilson Strutte; “Classical Composers,” by Peter Gammond; CD booklets

— Punch Shaw, Special to the Star-Telegram

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