The Clayton Piano Festival opened this weekend with a romantic program featuring piano music made famous by classic films, including Showboat, The Seven Year Itch, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and many more. As an attempt to “bring the living room to the concert hall,” the festival this year features several concerts in different themes, from movies to sacred music to women composers and more. What better way to accomplish this feeling and make classical music more accessible than showing favorite film clips during the concert? In collaboration with the Ava Gardner Museum, the concert also commemorated the North Carolina-native actress during Smithfield’s annual Ava Gardner Festival, running October 3rd through 5th.

WRAL news reporter Bryan Mims, emcee for the concert, read descriptions of the works performed, their composers, historical contexts, and introduced famous film clips in which some of the works were featured. Despite beginning twenty minutes late and dealing with some technical issues, the concert was lovely. Azamat Sydykov paid tribute to Sergei Rachmaninoff with his precision and technical brilliance in the performance of Prelude No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, and Prelude No. 5 in G Minor, Op. 23. He allowed both works to speak for themselves, without trying to overdramatize the already emotionally saturated chords. The G Minor was a little more reckless, Sydykov’s hands literally reduced to blurs.

A clip from The Man Who Wasn’t There led into a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s full Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, famously known as “Pathetique.” This work, similarly to Rachmaninoff’s preludes, is packed full of sudden emotional and thematic changes. Written at a time when Beethoven had just begun to accept his eventual deafness, the sonata is full of melodies that act as sentences, interrupting each other, elaborating on melodies full of urgency, nostalgia, longing, and perhaps defiance. It is easy to see why this essence of Romanticism has been featured in part in so many films, as it is already a soundtrack to the human experience.

Aram Khachaturian’s Adagio from Spartacus, arranged by Matthew Cameron, and Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. Posthumous, were two other famous works performed next in the concert, both evocative with many tones and emotional changes, more on the somber side, and both lacking energy in their performance. As an instrumentalist, I always prefer to see the performer becoming emotionally invested in his performance, rather than stripping away his reactions to the piece completely. I couldn’t teel whether these were not favorites of Sydykov’s or if they were just introspective, but it seemed that they were not as enthusiastically performed as the others.

The Ava Gardner portion of the concert featured the “Asturias” movement from Isaac Albeniz’s Suite Española No. 1, Op. 47, which is based on Andalucian flamenco styles in tribute to the latter part of Gardner’s life in Spain. She was born in 1922 near Smithfield, NC and lived a difficult rural life before a connection from her brother-in-law in New York City whisked her away to Hollywood. Dissatisfied by the over-dubbing of her singing and by roles that cast her only for her beauty, she moved to Spain, where she lived for over ten years. Mims shared anecdotes about Gardner’s domestic disagreements with her downstairs neighbor, Juan Perón. Accompanying a slideshow of photos courtesy of the Ava Gardner Museum, Sydykov returned again to play the world premiere of Clayton Piano Festival Director Jonathan Levin’s arrangement of “Can’t Help Lovin’ dat Man” from Showboat. Jerome Kern’s original melody was put through an elegant fusion of classical and jazz styles and was a work simultaneously plaintive and full of flourish.

To close the concert, Sydykov roused the audience with a much-needed, lively Franz Liszt waltz. The Mephisto Walze No. 1, S. 514 had been featured in what Mims described as “a B-horror-movie” with Alan Alda, The Mephisto Waltz, a reworked telling of the chapter from Faust detailing Mephistopholes’ possessed demon-waltz. This rendition whirled through emotions faster than any of the other pieces on the program, from merry to sinister to wild to reflective to frenetic to subdued – with a characteristically Liszt chordal ending.

After the standing ovation finally ended, everyone was invited to attend three more concerts as a part of the festival, as well as a lovely reception in the lobby where the festival board, directors, and performers alike were willing to meet with the audience.

The Clayton Piano Festival continues through Friday, October 10. Please reference this review’s sidebar for more details on the Festival and its remaining concerts.