Beautiful scenic Clayton, the once-tranquil farm-to-market village just across the Johnston County line from sophisticated, upscale Wake, home of the capital city (which has always been viewed by outsiders as pretentious…), is hosting its first (perhaps annual) piano festival, a tribute to the town’s increasingly vibrant cultural roots.* Verily, there have been lots of changes in Clayton, quite beyond “new” Highway 70, which once skirted the southern edge of the place. There are shopping centers everywhere., and the traffic on a Friday evening is as heavy as in much more populous towns. No longer need residents look to larger cities for amenities beyond agricultural implements. Clayton has become a remarkably self-sufficient and self-contained entity, one that embraces, among other things, a handsome home for the performing arts, forged from the old Clayton High School auditorium. The Clayton Center, as it is called, hosts its own visiting artists series, details of which we have listed for several years  in our calendar. The new piano festival demonstrates just how much potential still rests within the community.

Native son Jonathan Levin may be Clayton’s most distinguished performing artist of the classical ilk, and he’s giving back now, big time, with this six-event celebration of the piano, stretched across a seven-day period, through February 17.

The first program featured Levin himself, playing a Steinway concert grand (provided by Hopper Piano) in the physically-lovely and acoustically-appealing auditorium. Turnout was less than one might have anticipated but this was not for a lack of promotion – here’s hoping the crowds grow.

A cogent and insightful introduction to Schumann’s Op. 17 led to a remarkable performance of the famous three-movement Fantasy, the first of three components of a program devoted to “Romantic Fantasies.” Levin had firm command of this moody and mercurial score and projected it with keen insight. It’s not an easy work to bring off, so the fact that his listeners followed Levin with rapt attention is a tribute to the player’s skill and commitment to the piece.

Following the intermission came remarks and then a glowing reading of Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49. As with his introduction to the Schumann, Levin’s comments were right on the money, and the performance then capped his mini-biographical study. Again, there was warm applause.

The final work was Liszt’s “Dante” Sonata, the formal title of which is “Après un Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata.” This is perhaps the master pianist/composer’s greatest single work — for my money, it is of far greater merit than the more famous Sonata in B Minor — and it is a pleasure to report that Levin delivered it with power and panache, eliciting the evening’s biggest ovation — which was rewarded with a poised, thoughtful reading of Schumann’s Romance in F Sharp, Op. 28/2, a short, tranquil work that served as a perfect cap for this evening of major Romantic works.

Who’d have imagined it? A piano festival in Clayton! It’s off to a very good start.

The festival continues through February 17. For details, put “Clayton Piano Festival” in the  search block on our home page.

*Begging our readers’ indulgence…, when this writer first ventured into Clayton, nearly 58 years ago, its chief attraction was an outstanding hardware store, one of those old fashioned places that truly had one of almost everything. Thus the mere existence of this Clayton Piano Festival is, basically, a case of massive culture shock in reverse. Long may Levin and his colleagues thrive!