There was a lot at stake on the afternoon of October 6 when, in UNC’s venerable Hill Hall, pianist Thomas Otten made his formal area debut. The California native came to Chapel Hill from Kent State University, where he served as Chair of the Piano Division and co-founded the Kent Piano Seminar. He is now an Associate Professor of Piano, and nominally he replaces Michael Zenge, whose service at UNC overlapped the end of pianist and scholar William S. Newman’s long and distinguished tenure. Together, they and the other outstanding artists and teachers who hang their hats in Chapel Hill have helped form whole generations of outstanding players whose work will long continue to enrich our lives. As it happened, Otten’s “debut” was given under the auspices of the William S. Newman Artists Series, now celebrating its tenth anniversary. But it wasn’t his first local appearance. That would appear to have been in the form of a stealth runout to Meredith College, the publicity for which was (as is too often the case there) virtually nonexistent. A friend happened to see this Raleigh gig listed at Meredith’s website, attended the performance, and sent a rave report that served to whet our appetites.

That there was a lot riding on the Chapel Hill program was clear in several respects, not least of which was that the artist (or perhaps a piano technician) was still messing around in the hall at 2:45 p.m., while the audience waited in the lobby. We submit that, in general, if artists don’t know their programs by that late in the game, there’s not much hope, so the public should be allowed in…, but here, the ambient temperature was lower in the lobby than in the hall, so perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. And it didn’t take long to figure out that, in Otten’s case, he knew the music, cold.

Before we actually heard the music, however, there were some announcements and introductions. Music Department Chair Jim Ketch noted that Otten had given his program in four other venues, warming up (as it were) for Hill Hall. And it became clear that the event was truly special in another pianistic respect, too, for he was going to inaugurate one of two new Model D Steinway pianos, given to UNC by Ben Jones III in honor of soprano Terry Rhodes and tenor Stafford Wing. (That the honorees are singers, and the instruments are pianos, may have given pause to the University’s piano group, but who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth?) Anyway, the piano used on this occasion is a honey, and it’s a safe bet that none of the preliminary readings of the program were given on superior instruments. One question that went unanswered during the announcements was which piano was being debuted. It was the new baby girl, we learned afterwards -“Terry’s piano.” At UNC, at least, tradition still matters, so it was “ladies first” this time; we’ll look forward to hearing “Stafford’s piano” on another occasion. (It’s a shame that these new pianos will reside in a room that is not climate-controlled, and where the sprucings-up done for the University’s recent anniversary have already begun to fade – the paint is peeling, showing clear signs of leaks….)

The program consisted of the first volume of Debussy’s Preludes and Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata, given in its revised and significantly shortened version, presumably without Horowitz’s subsequent emendations. Otten came onto the platform at 3:10, clad in one of those blouses that are invariably worn by acolytes of fortepianist Malcolm Bilson (which attire, in and of itself, produced audible gasps from several members of the audience). Otten is new here, and he probably doesn’t know the high level of sophistication of our audiences. There were no program notes (the WSN Series would appear to be suffering the same sorts of financial constraints that plague many, many other presenters), so he offered remarks on both works that, under the circumstances, we could have done without. Still, the Debussy preludes – there are a dozen of them in Book I – are not often encountered in one fell swoop, and even seasoned music lovers and/or record collectors can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times they have heard all of them together. Reading the (Durand) score as Otten played enabled us to monitor his readings, which were scrupulously accurate and attentive to the composer’s wishes in virtually every respect. Thus his phrasing, his dynamics, his articulation, and all the other aspects of his playing met all expectations, and indeed the sum of the twelve parts resulted in a quite overwhelming musical and artistic experience. Several of these things fall into the chestnut category, since they are staples of mixed recitals and/or fairly frequent encores. Others are much less well known. Otten brought them to vivid life, infusing them with both meaning and emotion. It was, truly, an auspicious debut of a prodigious artist whom the public must surely embrace.

The Rachmaninoff, Otten (in a different but stylistically identical shirt) told us, is one big sprawling piece, even in the truncated (composer-revised) form he presented. But it’s not, as he seemed to suggest, unknown here, or elsewhere. Locally, Ray Kilburn, who was till fairly recently based at Peace College (and who returns to Duke for a recital with violinist Hsiao-mei Ku on October 20 – see our calendar), campaigned the original version. In Otten’s hands, the work seemed somewhat less bombastic, and indeed his renditions of the first two movements seemed to these ears almost understated, which allowed listeners to savor the inner voices in a way that was surely new to some. The finale, loud and fast (buzzwords for closing works picked by too many orchestral program builders, among others), served to wind up the crowd like a top, and at the end, the crowd went spinning with enthusiastic applause. Yep, this guy can play the piano.

[For the record, a cell phone rang at 4:37 p.m. When will we learn to silence these devices?]