Folks who think recitals are things of the distant past should have been in Chapel Hill over the weekend of March 4, when there were back-to-back solo programs by two fine pianists, one a student who is very much on his way up, and the other, the distinguished Chair of the Piano Division at UNC. The former, Arnav Tripathy, 15, gave his blockbuster concert in Hanes Theatre at Chapel Hill High School on March 4. The latter, Thomas Otten, performed his program – which involved some knuckle-busting – the next night, in Hill Hall, on the UNC campus. Tripathy’s recital was a benefit performance for the music departments of Chapel Hill’s two high schools and was very well attended. Otten’s concert was free and – for whatever reason – the hall was far from full. There were, as the printed handout said, “Some Program Notes” for Tripathy’s concert – they were limited to comments on three of the six formally-scheduled pieces. Otten offered insightful verbal comments that underscored his intimate knowledge of the selections.

Tripathy has commanded the attention of CVNC in the past, and he’s played here and there a great deal. His teacher, Victor Recondo, stakes much when he proclaims him “one of the greatest talents I have taught and heard…” [emphasis added], further stating, “If he continues on this path North Carolina will have a great virtuoso among its musicians.” Recondo’s right, too, in stating that Tripathy’s latest offering “is perhaps the most demanding one I have ever heard or read about.” In many ways, indeed, it suggested the sort of program the late Lazar Berman might have played – or Ray Kilburn, formerly on the faculty at Peace College. It was an evening of big works, played in big ways – sometimes almost larger than life. He began with Bach, as recitalists often do, but this was the remarkably far-out Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, in lieu of some tinkly warm-up piece. A Chopin group followed – the famous “Black Key” Etude, presented in one of Leopold Godowsky’s several enhancements (which make the music harder that its creator ever imagined), plus the Nocturne in c sharp minor (Op. 27/1) and the First Ballade, Op. 23. After intermission came Liszt’s Sonata in b minor and Prokofiev’s Toccata, Op. 11 and – as if the latter weren’t enough – Liszt’s famous “concert paraphrase” of themes from Verdi’s Rigoletto, as an encore.

It is fair to review students in the same column as seasoned masters? Yes – when the repertoire is like, say, Tripathy’s, and when the programs are advertised to the public.

Tripathy has learned his material well, under the tutelage of a master teacher. Few big-name artists would have attempted such a program, and that he did it and did it so well says much about this young man’s technical prowess and innate musicianship. The Bach flew like the wind. It worked well enough for what someone once called “Big Bach on a big piano” although there was more dazzle than substance. The program cited the Chopin etude as “arr. by Godowsky for the Left Hand” but it was a two-handed version that evoked some of the giants of the past in an altogether positive way, echoing the mostly lost Golden Age of Pianism when interpretation was an essential component of music-making. This seemed rushed, as did the First Ballade, but Tripathy showed his ken in the Nocturne, which was often relaxed and reflective.

The lights flickered after intermission and Tripathy began the Liszt Sonata before everyone had returned to the hall, but the playing was so infused with passion and drama that it picked up even the latecomers and swept them and the rest of the crowd along as if they were on the “bullet” train. The slow, comparatively introspective passages – there are some – received their due, but there was more bombast than soul-searching, and it was, again, a big reading that underscored the tempestuous nature of the work, perhaps at the expense of some of its beauty. If much of the playing was too loud, and too fast, and if there was often much too much pedal, which clouded lines that would have benefited from greater clarity, no one can have missed the importance of the moment for the soloist and for the community, and the response was tremendous. There was an even bigger ovation at the end, after the Toccata, and there were flowers along with the cheers. After being recalled several times, Tripathy rewarded his enthusiastic listeners with what may have been the evening’s finest achievement, the Rigoletto paraphrase, spun out magically as if the soloist had spent most of his spare time in the opera house instead of working through piano exercises. It was quite an evening, one that confirmed what many attendees already knew – this player has the prospect of a great future – if music wins out over his other great passion (for which he has also won many prizes), mathematics. Here’s a vote for music – and the hope that we will get to savor the continuing growth and development of this brilliant young pianist. His approach to these pieces and others he will take up will evolve over time as he develops more personality and a more engaging stage presence, broadens his general education, and learns from life itself. It will be a treat to hear him play a program like this in ten or twenty years and to note how his interpretations have changed.

Otten’s program was, as he himself observed, more of a general survey than he’s done thus far in Chapel Hill. He began with three Scarlatti sonatas, a remarkably reflective one in c minor that hardly suggests the sonatas most music lovers know (or think they know) plus “The Pastorale” (which collectors of a certain age will recall from Rachmaninov’s 1919 recording, in Tausig’s arrangement) and the quite dazzling Sonata in C, L.104, here greatly enhanced by Otten’s tasteful ornamentations. Ravel’s famous “Jeux d’Eau” literally sparkled as if sunlight were playing on the fountain before our very eyes. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29 was miraculous to hear, as played on this occasion. Few world-renowned masters, live or on records, have revealed its inner beauty as splendidly as Otten managed in Hill Hall. Again and again this performance suggested Bach’s handling of lines and structure – it often brought to this listener’s mind the Goldberg Variations, and when the chorale returned in the final pages, it was a transcendent experience (although that said, there was never any question that this was Beethoven at his – and its – best).

Part two was devoted to Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, a marvelous work too rarely heard (although stay tuned, for it will be presented next season by another important local artist who was present to hear Otten’s program). The Sixth is one of the so-called “Wartime” Sonatas; Barbara Nissman essayed it at Salem College last March, and Andrew Tyson, an Otten student, played the Seventh last November, at St. Mary’s, but mostly we must hear them, if we will, on records, and records are not the same as live, as Otten’s performance reminded us once again. The light and shade he brought to the music was ideal for its mercurial nature, at times intense and driving, elsewhere ranking with the most gorgeous neo-Romantic creations in all the literature. It was from start to finish a commanding reading, one that will linger long in the memory. The audience seemed to know how special it was, rewarding the artist with a rare – for Chapel Hill – standing ovation, which in turn elicited a single encore, “Dr.” Joe Utterback’s moving version of “Deep River” (from Three Spirituals). Here’s hoping he keeps playing like this for a long, long time – and that we’ll be around to savor his art for another ten or twenty years or more….

The differences in the two Chapel Hill programs were not subtle. Both players have tremendous technique and ability. But Otten has arrived, as it were, and is at one with the music (and the composers) he has spent a lifetime playing and – as important – thinking about. There were no occasions when one felt like saying to him “Slow down – let it sing!” He knew, and he delivered. With luck, Tripathy will achieve the same sense of serenity in his work, in due course.