Photo by Karen Almond

Thunder crashed and lightning crackled outside, but a freak Friday night thunderstorm couldn’t dampen spirits at the Fort Worth Symphony Opening Night Concert and Celebration on September 8.

First a performance by the FWSO and 19-year-old pianist Yunchan Lim, under the direction of Robert Spano, lit up the audience inside Bass Hall. It was Lim’s highly anticipated return to the stage where he became the youngest-ever winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2022 (and has since become a piano rock star).

After their performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Spano bear-hugged Lim, the audience rose for several curtain calls, a patron in the front row presented Lim flowers, and he returned the adoration with a solo encore.

Spano and the orchestra book-ended Lim’s performance with two beloved works by Brahms, his Academic Festival Overture and Symphony No. 1 in C minor. It was an electrifying start to the 2023-24 season, which marks Spano’s second as FWSO music director.

Following the concert, FWSO's most devoted supporters braved gusty winds of a coming storm to walk to City Club for a dinner party. Hosted by chairman Mercedes T. Bass and the FWSO board of directors, the Opening Night Celebration honored Alann B. Sampson for decades of service to the orchestra, the Cliburn, and the greater Fort Worth arts and cultural community.

While a pianist serenaded, patrons filed in and grabbed glasses of wine and champagne or visited the bar for a mixed drink or shaken martini. A towering violin-shaped ice sculpture provided both the focal point of the elegant room and a popular photo opp.

The opening-night party is as much a celebration of the FWSO musicians as it is of those who support the music-making. Relaxed and fresh from the stage, musicians including concertmaster Michael Shih, principal bassoon Joshua Elmore, assistant principal trumpet Cody McClarty, violinist Camilla Wojciechowska, violinist Albert Yamamoto (and many more) mingled with CEO Keith Cerny and wife Jennifer and other symphony leaders.

Guests dined on a buffet supper of sliced beef tenderloin, lamb chops, cold salmon, an assortment of finger sandwiches, salad, and charcuterie; a mashed potato bar; and a tower of mini desserts.

FWSO principal pianist Shields-Collins “Buddy" Bray introduced Sampson as recipient of the prestigious FWSO Medal of Excellence. Sampson joined the FWSO Board of Directors in 1991 and has been involved with the Cliburn since its inception.

“Alann has been a proselytizer for music, an evangelist for music in the city of Fort Worth, and this has been her story her whole life,” he said, describing how she passed out programs at the first Cliburn competition in 1962.

In her heartfelt remarks, Sampson called it a “privilege of a lifetime” to share the celebratory evening with Lim and the FWSO leadership and musicians. “Please know it is I who celebrates you,” she said.

She acknowledged family members in attendance - daughter Anne and husband Brett Leonard and granddaughter Madeleine Leonard, son Edward Sampson and wife Jennifer - and friends with whom she has shared many decades of service and support.

“To the musicians," she added poetically, “I’m just the backstage girl, and my instrument is my heart … Indeed the musicians, with Maestro, you are the strings to the stars, you are the winds for the celestial orbs, and with unceasing beat, you give awareness to the presence of the eternal. You bring harmony to the marking of time in this world through times of sorrow, praise, and joy, we can’t live without music.”

She ended, appropriately, with "a wink to Van Cliburn," her dear departed friend, who no doubt was celebrating in the presence of the eternal.

Among those offering Sampson warm applause were friends and fellow FWSO patrons Carla Thompson, Marcia French, Frasher Pergande, John Broude, Connie Beck, Priscilla Martin, Charles White, Richard Moncrief, Marsland Moncrief, Gail Rawl, Capera Ryan, Ken Blasingame, J. Brooks, Lee Hallman, Yann Coatanlem, and Tommy Smith.

FWSO Opening Night Celebration 2023

Photo by Karen Almond

Brett Leonard, Madeleine Leonard, Anne Leonard, Alann Sampson, Yunchan Lim, Jennifer Sampson, Edward Sampson III

Photo by Ralph Lauer

15-year-old South Korean pianist wins 2023 Cliburn International Junior Competition

Cliburn winners

Seokyoung Hong, a 15-year-old phenom from South Korea, took home the top prize at the 2023 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival in Dallas on Saturday, June 17.

As winner, Hong received a cash award of $15,000. He also was chosen as the winner of the Audience Award ($500).

A past prize-winner at several international competitions, Hong moved from his native Seoul to Boston in 2022, where he now studies piano at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School.

Notably, Hong's triumph at the Cliburn Junior competition came exactly a year (to the day) after fellow South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim's historic and gold medal-winning performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Yifan Wu, 14, of China, won second place (a cash award of $10,000) at the Cliburn Junior. Wu, who hails from Shanghai, made his concerto debut with the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra and is a laureate of Chinese national competitions.

Third prize ($5,000 cash) went to Jan Schulmeister, 16, of Czechia, who has taken home more than 30 awards at piano competitions and has recorded two CDs.

The top three winners also received $2,500 scholarships to further their musical advancement.

Three semifinalists - Zihan Jin, 14, of China; Modan Oyama, 17, of Japan; and Zhonghua Wei, 14, of China - each received cash awards of $2,500.

The winners were announced by jury chairman Janina Fialkowska at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on Saturday at the conclusion of the final round, in which all three finalists played a concerto with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Valentina Peleggi.

Before an excited audience of piano fans and Cliburn supporters from across Dallas-Fort Worth, the affable Schulmeister started the afternoon with Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2, followed by Wu on Chopin’s lyrical Piano Concerto No. 1. Hong finished the competition with Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

The 2023 Cliburn Junior competition took place June 8-17, with the first three rounds contested at Caruth Auditorium at SMU before moving to the Meyerson for the finals with the DSO.

Twenty-three pianists, aged 13-17, from around the world came to Dallas to compete in the event. In total, 38 pianists representing 13 countries were selected (from a pool of 248 applicants) as either contestants or participants in Cliburn Junior festival events.

A webcast of the competition drew more than 1.2 million views in 122 countries, nearly doubling the 2019 Cliburn Junior total of 650,000 views, the organization announced.

The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival was established in 2015 “as another means for the Cliburn to use its standing and expertise to encourage tomorrow’s great artists, to provide a valuable forum for them to express themselves, and to give them an entrance to the next step of their journeys,” the organization says.

The next Cliburn competition will be the Seventeenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, in 2025, in Fort Worth.

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'Yellowstone' stars to greet fans at Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo

Yellowstone news

Yellowstone fans, get your comfy shoes ready - there'll be a long line for this one. Cole Hauser a.k.a. "Rip Wheeler" on Yellowstone, and Taylor Sheridan, the show's co-creator, executive producer, and director of the series, will meet fans and sign autographs at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo.

The event will take place from 4:30-6:30 pm only on Friday, February 3. Location is the 6666 Ranch booth near the south end of Aisle 700 in the Amon G. Carter, Jr. Exhibits Hall.

According to a February 2 announcement from FWSSR, "fans will have the opportunity to snag an autograph as well as purchase some distinctive Yellowstone and 6666 Ranch merchandise while also enjoying all the features the Stock Show offers."

The event is free to attend (with paid Stock Show admission) and open to the public.

It's the second year in a row for Hauser to appear at FWSSR; in 2022, he and fellow cast mates drew huge crowds.

Sheridan, a Paschal High School graduate, is no stranger to Fort Worth; he lives in a ranch near Weatherford and filmed 1883, the prequel to Yellowstone, in and around Fort Worth. Currently, another spinoff, 1883: The Bass Reeves Story, is filming in North Texas.

The Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo is winding up its 2023 run on Saturday, February 4.

These are the 12 must-see shows in Dallas-Fort Worth theater for December

Theater Critic Picks

It's here: holiday show time. Many of them opened at the end of November, so we're including them here for your planning ease.

Whether you're looking for something family-friendly, a play the in-laws will love, or a performance that has nothing to do with the holidays at all, read on.

In order of start date, here are 12 local shows to watch this month:

Jada Bells - A Holiday Extravaganza
Uptown Players, through December 10
Dallas drag performer Jada Pinkett Fox, aka Lee Walter, will show off her charisma, stage presence, and voice as she brings her unique blend of glamour, humor, and talent to the stage. Jada will be joined by musical guests, each bringing their own flair and style. The holiday-themed extravaganza, written and directed by BJ Cleveland, features classic holiday favorites and contemporary hits.

Black Nativity
Bishop Arts Theatre Center, through December 17
For 19 years, Bishop Arts Theatre Center's annual holiday production of Black Nativity, inspired by Langston Hughes's iconic 1960 Broadway show, is back with a mesmerizing display of hand-clapping, toe-tapping, and finger-snapping theatrical wonderment like never before.

Poor Clare
Stage West, through December 17
Meet Clare: a stylish teen living in medieval Italy, trying out the newest hairstyles, and keeping up with the latest fashions and juicy town gossip. But everything changes when she meets a man named Francis who has started ranting in the streets. Her mother, sister, and maids don’t understand it, but this man’s ideas are, like, totally starting to make sense – and now she can’t unsee the world he has shown her.

Scrooge in Rouge
Theatre Three, through December 17
After a widespread case of food poisoning wipes out the majority of The Royal Music Hall Twenty-Member Variety Players, three surviving members of the company soldier on through a performance of A Christmas Carol that abounds in bad puns, naughty double-entendres, and witty songs.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Dallas Children's Theater, through December 23
Rediscover the true reason for the season while sharing laughs with the Peanuts Gang along the way. Accompanied by a live combo, Charles Schulz’s classic special will make audiences nostalgic for days gone by.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical
Casa Mañana, through December 23
Based on the best-selling book and play by Barbara Robinson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical is the story of the Herdmans, who are the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie, they steal, they bully other kids, and they smoke smelly cigars. There used to be only one place where you’d never see them: church.

A Gospel Black Nativity
Jubilee Theatre, through December 24
Black Nativity is an adaptation of the Nativity story by Langston Hughes, performed by an entirely Black cast. Hughes was the author of the book, with the lyrics and music being derived from traditional Christmas carols, sung in gospel style, with a few songs created specifically for the show.

A Christmas Carol
Dallas Theater Center, through December 30
Three spirits have come to visit the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, and to take him on a fantastic journey through Christmases past, present, and future. Brimming with joyful songs, magical spirits, and holiday cheer, this holiday classic embodies a story of joy, redemption, and the spirit of Christmas.

Safe at Home
Kitchen Dog Theater, December 7-10
An engaging and provocative site-specific work designed to be performed inside a baseball stadium, the second-ever professional production of Safe at Home examines the complex intersection between baseball, politics, and the American Dream. Lead by tour guides, pods of audience members travel throughout the stadium to nine different spaces, ranging from a luxury suite to the men’s room to the dugout, as the patrons — not the cast — move from scene to scene.

Theatre Three, December 7-31
Without a success to his credit for some years, Sidney Bruhl receives a new potential hit script called Deathtrap that was written by his student. Sidney plots with his reluctant wife Myra about how best to plagiarize the play and the evening takes a hilarious and dangerous turn.

The Cher Show
Broadway at the Center, December 14-16
Superstars come and go but Cher is forever. The Cher Show is the Tony Award-winning musical of her story, and it’s packed with so much Cher that it takes three women to play her: the kid starting out, the glam pop star, and the icon.

Les Miserables
Broadway Dallas, December 20-31
Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, the production tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption — a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit. The epic and uplifting story has become one of the most celebrated musicals in theatrical history.

Director Todd Haynes tackles inappropriate relationships in May December

Movie Review

Director Todd Haynes has pushed buttons throughout his career, starting with his acclaimed short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which used Barbie dolls to illustrate the late singer’s anorexia battle. He’s at it again with his latest, May December, which tackles the idea of highly inappropriate relationships through a lens that itself has the potential to be upsetting.

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an acclaimed actress, has traveled to Savannah, Georgia to shadow Gracie (Julianne Moore) in preparation for a movie in which Elizabeth will play Gracie. That movie tackles the beginnings of Gracie’s relationship with Joe (Charles Melton), when he was a 13-year-old seventh grader and she was a 36-year-old pet shop worker. The shocking tryst resulted in much controversy, a child, and a jail stint for Gracie, but the couple professed their love for each other through it all.

Twenty years later, they’re still together, having added two more kids to their family, children who happen to be the same age as Gracie’s grandkids from her previous relationship. Elizabeth wants to experience it all, bouncing from person to person to try to understand exactly who Gracie is and was. Striving for authenticity in her performance, however, soon takes her down a Method acting rabbit hole.

Directed by Haynes from a script by Samy Burch, and loosely based on the story of teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, the film treats Gracie and Joe’s relationship in a relatively straightforward manner. It details a benign life in which they have the love of their kids and some neighbors, even if they occasionally get a box full of poop on their doorstep.

It’s the arrival of Elizabeth that sends things spiraling, as her various conversations trigger responses from both Gracie and Joe that they seem not to expect. Haynes alternates between being serious and being campy, with not enough of each for either for them to seem to be the goal. The score gives off a less-than-serious vibe, and an early scene in which a mundane thing is treated as if it were happening in a soap opera points in the campy direction, but those type of moments are few and far between.

In casting Portman as the obsessive actor, Haynes may have been trying to offer up echoes of her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan. It’s no small irony that the person who comes off as the most craven in such a sordid story is the actor who everybody wants to be around, not the woman who became a pariah because she is a sex offender. In that and other ways, Haynes upends expectations, keeping the film interesting even through its slower moments.

Portman and Moore are ideal for their respective roles, Portman because she has a knack for portraying confidence and guile, and Moore due to her ability to manipulate at will. Melton, best known for playing Reggie on Riverdale, pales in comparison due to his less showy role, but he complements the story well. Special notice goes to Elizabeth Yu as Gracie and Joe’s daughter Mary, who shines in her limited scenes.

The story of May December contains elements that will creep certain viewers out, whether it’s the subject matter itself or the performances of the two great lead actors. Haynes has a way of getting under the skin with his storytelling, and this film is yet another great example.


May December will debut on Netflix on December 1.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December

Photo by François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December.