The Classical Note: A Living Composer Series Takes the Cliburn Beyond the Competition

Composer Derek Bermel regaled a Fort Worth audience Saturday afternoon by explaining that, even though the principal theme of his Turning for piano solo may sound like the old Protestant Sunday School hymn “Jesus Loves Me,” the resemblance was purely unintentional—and that, coming from a Jewish background, he was unaware of the song until he saw, to his amazement and surprise, the piece listed as “Variations on ‘Jesus Loves Me’” in connection with a concert performance of the work at a festival in Michigan.

Such are the pitfalls of being a composer at a time when all the good tunes have already been written. One of the advantages of being a composer in the twenty-first century, however, is that at least some purveyors of classical concert music actively and aggressively promote the works of living composers.

Fort Worth’s Cliburn Foundation, best known as the presenter of the quadrennial Cliburn International Piano Competition (coming up again next May), is one such organization. Although the competition itself is occasionally targeted as an anachronistic relic of nineteenth-century artistic personality cults, the foundation’s annual series of Saturday afternoon events featuring music by living composers, with the composers present, provides an interesting contemporary angle to that city’s music scene—in much the same way that the Museum of Modern Art of Fort Worth, where the composer-oriented concerts are held, constantly refreshes the region’s outlook in the visual arts.

Saturday’s concert displayed some of the inherent challenges in the format. Introduction of a composer unfamiliar to most of the audience demands some spoken presentation, but the afternoon hovered dangerously close to containing as much talking as music-making. The event also stretched to over ninety minutes without intermission, which can test even the most enthusiastic listener’s patience.

Bermel’s music easily shone through these minor glitches, revealing a composer with an intriguing concept of counterpoint, a sturdy sense of form, and a gift for both melodic and harmonic lyricism. Pianist Sheilds-Collins Bray, clarinetist Andrew Crisanti, flutist Jan Crisanti, and oboist Stewart Williams (as well as the composer, who performed his own Thracian Sketches for solo clarinet) presented the sometimes complex music to perfection. All in all, with the lively crowd inside and outside the concert hall, the beauty of the venue, and the fresh take on the musical tradition by Bermel, it was one of those days that makes Fort Worth so loveable.

The series will continue with appearances by composers John Bucchino on January 19 and on Christopher Theofanidis on April 6.


Intercollegiate cooperation gets a lift this week when pianists Krassimira Jordan (artist-in-residence at Baylor University) and Pamela Mia Paul (Regents Professor at the University of North Texas) present performances of piano duo works on consecutive days. They’ll perform works of Mozart, Infante, and Schubert at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17 at Caruth Auditorium at SMU, and add the two-piano version of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole for an evening-length concert at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18 at Voertman Recital Hall on the UNT campus. Both concerts are free.