Part of what makes the Clayton Piano Festival unique each year is its presentation of piano performances that may not fit the expected mold of a “classical” piano concert. This year, director Jonathan Levin‘s specific goal for the festival was to make each performance more accessible and meaningful for the audience through narrative dialogue about the music from the performing artists themselves.

The third program of the festival, titled “From Russia with Love,” and presented at the Cary Arts Center, did exactly that. Twenty-one year-old Russian pianist Nikita Galaktionov briefly shared his impressions of each piece, alongside a dedicated emcee for the event, Emmy Award-winning Renaissance man, David Dubal.

Dubal is known for many different things, but is especially well-respected for his knowledge of piano literature, composers, and pianists. To precede each set of the concert, he sometimes read excerpts from his book The Essential Canon of Classical Music, but frequently, his detailed historical context seemed to be off the cuff, flowing from the wealth of knowledge inside his head. Dubal’s composer accounts were at times meandering, but brought each composer to life in a relatable way with uncommon details that sparked the listener’s interest. Of course, Galaktionov really brought the music to life with his performances.

The program featured three Russian composers: Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, two bookends of Russian Romanticism, and then Mily Balakirev, a lesser-known contemporary of Tchaikovsky, in between. The three composers together provided a wide scope of Russian piano music, both biographically and musically. After Dubal’s lengthy introduction, Galaktionov opened the concert with selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons (Op. 37) – short, tonal character pieces written to evoke the moods or events of each month of the year. Each of the movements are not just weather-based; February, for example, brings to life a joyful carnival, similar to Mardi Gras. This movement was more emotionally even. Galaktionov employed more rubato in the April and June movements, the former depicting spring’s gentle beginning and the latter evoking imagery of a Venetian gondola, a theme described by the pianist himself before playing (the piece itself is subtitled Barcarolle).

Balakirev’s Toccata in C-sharp minor is a bit more complex, but still tonal; a constant flowing motion supports seemingly independent melodies in each hand. Next, Galaktionov’s more delicate expression came through in Balakirev’s arrangement of Mikhail Glinka’s melody with “The Lark,” which would contrast the dense Rachmaninov to come.

Galaktionov’s introduction to his Rachmaninov set was simple, but incredibly significant – he said that he could not properly introduce Rachmaninov’s pieces with his own interpretation, because he believes that every listener takes away something different, something that he could not define himself. Thus, his Rachmaninov set was played with a great sense of gravity and purpose. The pieces selected comprised a wide variety of moods and textures: from the perky nobility of the Moment Musicaux (Op. 16, No.1 in B minor) to the sweepingly sorrowful melody of the Elegy (Op. 3 No. 1) and the reckless, wild “Bells” – Etude Tableaux Op. 39, No. 9. In short, there was a texture, mood, or image to satisfy every listener. Combined with Dubal’s and Galaktionov’s introductions, this made for a very immersive experience.