A remarkable concert – from an historical perspective, one of the most significant, perhaps, of this season – took place on October 20 in Elon University’s Whitney Auditorium, a lovely room that, thanks to its beautiful organ and the layout of its foyer and balcony, resembles a church. It’s a smallish venue, and a very lively one – a shade too lively, in retrospect, for what was played…. It’s nestled into the south side of the campus near the railroad tracks – near enough, indeed, for trains going by to be heard and felt, as if some gremlin had let loose on one of the organ’s lowest pedals. There’s plenty of free parking, including many handicapped places, and it’s a shorter walk from “downtown” (such as it is) to the hall than many music lovers must trek to attend events in the Triangle. The fact that there are fine eateries in the immediate vicinity adds icing to the cake. Yep, Elon is where it’s at – or where it was, on this occasion.

The concert was a duo-piano recital, played on two well-matched Steinway grands by Richard and John – or was it John and Richard? – Contiguglia, seasoned artists who happen to be identical twins and who are sent traveling around the country by the Adams Foundation, whose chief mission seems to be providing pianists to typically underserved American burgs and villages. The event was co-sponsored by the Times-News of Burlington, a local paper that has not lost sight of the industry’s long-standing obligation to support its community…. Of course, Elon University has a vibrant music program with lots of appealing offerings, so I’m not certain it fits the Foundation’s goals, but I’m glad the Adams folks think it does!

The program consisted of two large transcriptions by Liszt, starting with the composer’s own “Orpheus,” best known in its orchestral guise as the Symphonic Poem No. 4, which the outstanding program notes – by the visiting artists – reminded us was written as a curtain-raiser for a performance of Gluck’s opera. The other transcription was of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. “Orpheus” bears catalog no. S.98 in the original version, S.638 in the arrangement played here. The Ninth is S.657. The notes cite a somewhat later version for one piano and mention that the artists have enhanced the transcription by adding in bits from Beethoven’s orchestral (and presumably vocal) parts that the master omitted, making the resulting score somewhat larger than Liszt, if that’s possible. It may be worth adding that regional music lovers thus have a rare opportunity to have heard this edition and the real McCoy, since the Ninth Symphony figures in a gala concert slated for 10/28 in Chapel Hill (see our calendar for details). With all due respects for Maestro Tonu Kalam and the forces he is assembling, UNC will be hard-pressed to match the clarity and brilliance of the “stripped-down” Elon reading. It was a humdinger of immense proportions, in every respect.

But before we turn to the performance, a few words about transcriptions like these may be in order. There was a time – hard though it may be to envision it – when orchestras were not ubiquitous, when if one wanted to hear the great masterworks, one had to travel to the great cities of the Western world. When I was a teenager, I spent a summer with a refugee from Berlin who told me that among the highlights of his childhood were the performances he heard of – eventually – all the Beethoven symphonies. He explained that he’d walked to nearby towns or taken the train to various German cities to accomplish this, reminding me that, at that time, they weren’t available on records (78s) and they were only rarely carried on low-grade radio transmissions. That was clearly a far cry from today, when many community orchestras play the canon, sometimes more than once. And it certainly was a far cry from the time when you could get a set of all nine symphonies for free, for joining a book or record club – or download them from the then-unheard of “web.” So one had a choice, back then. One could travel – or one could buy piano transcriptions of orchestral and operatic works and play them at home. Many hacks churned out many editions, some simple, some not-so-simple, some almost unplayable, some not worth playing….. The market was domestic – and the consumers were all the bright little children and adolescents whose families insisted that some degree of musical literacy was an essential component of a well-educated upwardly mobile…. Well, you get the picture.

And then there was Liszt, whom many viewed as a charlatan – some still do. He was the Paganini of the Piano (or was Paganini the Liszt of the Violin?) Ladies swooned the way our generations carry on about rock stars and athletes. Hard to imagine, eh?

It’s hard to imagine, too, how difficult these two Liszt pieces must be. Yes, folks who haunted pianos studios – as students or hangers-on – have heard these things or scores like them – they were required material for “piano ensemble” classes at UNC when I was there, and many of us cringe at the memory….

But then those Chapel Hillians of long ago (and others) weren’t the Contiguglia Brothers, and they weren’t pounding out the music on two matched Steinways in a lovely church-like chamber that helped turn the October 20 concert into something of a spiritual event. Brief spoken introductions set the stage. Printed music was nowhere to be seen – the performances were given from memory. And the playing was as astonishing as the music itself. These guys come by this material honestly, of course. They made what is said to have been the first recording of the 9th in this version, back in 1975, and they’re going to do it again in the near future. It will be a disc to seek out, for sure. One might guess that they’ve played the Symphony many times – and one might assume that it’s become routine for them. Not so! Great works always offer more than one can master at a single playing or hearing – that’s why they’re great. And the best artists – in which august group the Contiguglias belong – find new meaning in every repeat performance. So there was nothing routine about this concert – not in the “Orpheus” or in the Symphony. In the first case, it was communion with one of the great mythological figures of music, as filtered through the mind of one of the great Romantics. In the second case, it was communion, pure and simple, a symbolic taste of the body and blood of a work that has since the outset been larger than life. At the end, one was hesitant to break the spell with applause. It was that special. Instead of four soloists and a chorus and an orchestra, this concert involved twenty fingers, four feet, and two pianos. I personally have loved this music since I was 12 years old, and I have also sung in the finale, but at Elon I heard things I’d never noticed before, due to the great precision and clarity of the performance. ‘Twas Art with a capital “A,” all ’round.