In its sixth season, the Clayton Piano Festival, brainchild of NY-based ex-Tar Heel Jonathan Levin, is branching out in several respects. The festival has always been eclectic in terms of its engagement of up-and-coming artists who offer innovative programs that embrace some rarely-heard works performed in often-atypical venues, mostly in the heart of beautiful downtown Clayton. This year, however, the festival expands its service area to Benson and Cary and reaches out to a new venue in northeast Clayton while continuing to set new standards for appealing mixes of new and standard repertory.

This year’s rarest fare was offered on Nov. 2 in the Piazza at Portofino, an attractive room with lively acoustics in which a glistening Steinway grand (from Hopper) was heard to particularly good advantage as Mexican pianist and musicologist Cesar Reyes gave a marvelous recital of Central and South American piano music enlivened with informative spoken introductions. It’s not that we haven’t had important specialists in this music playing here before. Rather, this program illustrated the fact that there’s so much more music from this great tradition that we haven’t heard.

Reyes, the founder and artistic director of New York’s annual Latin American Piano and Song Festival, offered in Clayton music by Manuel M. Ponce (1882-1948), Miguel Bernal Jiménez (1910-56), José Pablo Moncayo (1912-58), the Cuban Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), Silvestre Revueltas 1899-1940), the Argentinians Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and Aníbal Carmelo Troilo (1914-75), the Venezuelan Moises Moleiro (1904-79), and the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera (1916-83). The program was based in part on a works list published in the program but there were some changes and omissions. The encore was a downright Lisztian arrangement by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907) of Mexico’s National Anthem, composed by Jaime Nunó (1824-1908). (We have provided more info on these guys – they are all guys – than usual as a service to readers who may wish to look up more music like that we sampled in Clayton.)

The visiting artist has a big technique and keen understanding of the music he plays. Some of the works given might be viewed as little more than salon pieces, but each was delivered with deep commitment, so every composition emerged as an individual gem. Some were simple at heart – Ponce’s “Balada Mexicana” (1915), a substantial elaboration on two simple popular or folk tunes, or the six short sections given from Jiménez’s Carteles (Pastels) (published 1957 but surely composed much earlier) – while others were far more profound and dramatic – like, for instance, Moncayo’s fascinating “Muros Verdes” (Green Walls) (1951). Lecuona’s “La comparsa” was welcome; the composer of “Malagueña” merits greater exposure! The best known piece was probably Piazzolla’s “Milonga del Angel,” so it is noteworthy that Reyes paired it with fellow countryman Troilo’s “La Trampera (milonga).” Moliero’s “Joropo” has been taken up by artists with bigger names than Reyes, but few have made a more persuasive case for it than he. Likewise Ginastera’s famous dances have been widely heard but – again – Reyes’ playing was powerfully convincing. And as for the encore, for which we probably should have stood at the outset, here’s a performance of the Himno Nacional Mexicano from YouTube by Reyes himself. Everyone in attendance stood when it was over, for sure!

There was a fine-lookin’ post-concert reception that centered on Mexican cuisine, too.

The Clayton Piano Festival concludes Nov. 4 with an all-Russian concert in Cary. For details, click here.