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The burgeoning metropolis that is Clayton was busy on a cool Thursday evening, with heavy traffic heading into town from the west and with few available parking places on Main Street. The town's steakhouse (with homemade desserts) was doing brisk business at 6 p.m. And by shortly before 7 p.m. the lovely venue that is the historic Wagner House – built in 1912, it really is a piece of history – was filling up for the first of what are surely going to be many holiday galas, put on by the Clayton Piano Festival.
The house offered seating in several rooms, packing folks in almost akin to sardines in tins; the event appeared to be completely sold out. Sightlines are typical of such venues when pressed into service for concerts but better by far than others we've experienced (including the Horace Williams House in Chapel Hill and Inez's Cherry Hill). Hopper Piano sent a nice little grand over for the occasion, and it was placed to good effect where it could be seen reasonably well and heard to excellent advantage.
The festival is the artistic brain-child of New York-based Tar Heel pianist Jonathan Levin, who tends to engage guests of comparable artistic excellence for his musical offerings. This was no exception. There was bright light aplenty from the beautiful singing of soprano Joy Jan Jones, likewise based in the Big Apple. Also on hand was violinist Michael Danchi, a superior artist who is among Levin's most frequent collaborators. So it was more than a recital: this veered into vocal chamber music territory a good bit of the time.
The bill of fare included admirable solo work from Levin – highlighted by a dazzling version of "My Favorite Things" (arranged by Stephen Hough) and, later, large swaths of Nutcracker music as magnificently transcribed by Mikhail Pletnev (whose version of the famous Pas de deux inspired one guest to ask, rhetorically, "Who needs an orchestra?"). (Some of the ballet music involved the violinist.) Danchi then offered solo music by Bach in the form of two movements from the first sonata (S.1001), amusingly cast in the spoken introduction as "Christmas music" but played with genuine elegance and technical polish to boot.
But it was the work these instrumentalists did with the visiting soprano that is likely to linger longest in the memory. Hers is not your typical high soprano voice, although she has a not-inconsiderable top, for the tone is rich and warm and her diction is really wonderful, permitting her to put across the words with unusual clarity. She sang in both English and French, and that was more than sufficient to sample her skills, but her bio revealed she's done lots of opera, including the title role in Norma, so it would be nice to have her come back to sing again here.
She began with "Once in Royal David's City," the lovely hymn often used as a processional. She was partnered admirably by Levin and Danchi, invariably supportive, never excessive – this really was a chamber music approach to music making in an intimate venue, and the results were consistently impressive.
Handel's "Rejoice greatly" turns up often during the holiday season; Jones' rendition was striking in its heartfelt sensitivity and her technical abilities, too. Reynaldo Hahn's "L'heure exquise" was admirably introduced with a reading of the poem in English translation and then even more admirably interpreted in what may have been the artistic highlight of the evening. But there was more in store: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" proved charming, and Praetorius' "Lo how a rose" made its customary favorable impression combining reverence and soft-spoken awe. "Who Would Imagine a King," made famous by Whitney Houston, was the evening's welcome novelty, and it proved charming, as realized by these artists. "Sleigh Ride" (with words) brought the formal part of the program to a festive close before a sing-along "Hallelujah" Chorus, with some members of the audience struggling with the music because the distributed scores didn't always mirror what was being played – although there were no audible complaints as patrons dug into the reception goodies.
Throughout, the artists exuded joy, and their enthusiasm was made manifest in the expressions of pleasure on the faces and in the applause of the audience. Well done!