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PianoTexas series opens with lively, vivid performance by Sean Chen, a Cliburn alumnus

Posted 10:19am on Wednesday, Jun. 11, 2014

Summer is a’comin’ in, but that doesn’t mean that classical music-lovers have to be starved for their kind of art. For instance, there is the PianoTexas International Academy & Festival, which is underway at TCU and will continue through June 29.

This brings together a highly talented group of young musicians, some high-powered professionals to act as their guides toward musical mastery, and — best of all from the listeners’ standpoint — a series of programs by the pros that are open to the public for a modest price.

The first of the festival’s Distinguished Artist Series programs was Tuesday night in PepsiCo Recital Hall. The featured artist was pianist Sean Chen, who won the crystal medal at the last Cliburn Competition.

Each year the festival focuses on a single composer, though others are not ignored. This year the spotlighted composer is Mozart. Chen opened and closed his recital with music by the Salzburg supercomposer, but strayed into Copland, Bach, Chopin and Ravel territory in his highly varied program.

The opener was Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat, K. 333 — a favorite of Van Cliburn in his earlier years. Chen gave a lively, cleanly played performance that was full of high spirits and was notable, among other things, for the subtlety and interest in the supporting left hand material. The fleet finale, complete with a cadenza, was a joy to hear.

A stark change of mood came with Copland’s Piano Variations, which is a far cry from the folksy music generally associated with the composer. This is tough-minded stuff with hints of more congenial material here and there. Chen gave it a vivid performance that maintained interest throughout.

A Bach Adagio (BWV 968) and Ricercar from The Musical Offering (BWV 1079) made a nice pair with some interesting contrapuntal passages and striking harmonic material.

Four Impromptus by Chopin were played with the kind of poetry and flair you would expect of a Cliburn finalist.

The real showstopper was Chen’s own arrangement for solo piano of Ravel’s La Valse. There were awesome fireworks that took the pianist far out of amateur territory.

Chen let the audience down gently with a deeply moving performance of Mozart’s beautiful Fantasy in D minor to close the evening.

PianoTexas’ Distinguished Artist Series will continue with pianist Alan Goldstein and the Harrington Quartet on June 14; Alexander Shtarkman, another Cliburn alumnus, on June 17; old master Paul Badura-Skoda on June 22; eight of the academy’s faculty members on June 24; and pianist Hung-Kuan Chen on June 28. Most of the music will be by Mozart.

A full schedule of master classes, concerts, recitals and chamber and orchestral music will keep the Academy & Festival busy.

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