Twenty-year-old pianist Avery Gagliano is on a journey. It has had its pitfalls: only seven years ago, her absences from middle school to perform in competitions and concerts caused her to be labeled a truant by her public-school system. (The City Council made amends by honoring her for her contribution to the Arts.) Less than a month ago, after scoring high enough to earn entry into the semi-final round of the 18th Chopin Competition in Warsaw, that third-round playing wasn’t at the level of her first two recitals, and she didn’t make it to the final round.

But her journey continues as she approaches the upper echelon of superbly-talented pianists. Recruited by Paderewski Festival Artistic Director Adam Wibrowski after she was the highest-ranked American at that Warsaw competition, she came to Raleigh to open this eighth annual festival; she next appears at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on November 30. Her first CD recording, on the Steinway & Sons label, has just been released.

Understandably, having played three recitals of Chopin’s music only two weeks ago, Gagliano’s program included seven of the Polish master’s works, preceded by J.S. Bach’s “English” Suite in A minor, BWV 807. From the opening Prelude through the six dance movements which followed, her Bach sparkled with articulate clarity. The dances danced, the ornaments (agréments) in the Sarabande beautifully turned without interrupting the rhythmic flow. (She played all the repeats in each movement, thus adding some 200 measures of music to the performance; one wonders if these repetitions, conceivably penned in the originals simply because it was “the way it’s done” in the 18th century, are musically necessary in the 21st century.)

Then came Chopin’s timeless creations: Nocturne in B, Op. 62/1, Ballade No. 1, Op. 23, Sonata No. 2, in B-flat minor, Op. 35, Three Mazurkas, Op. 56, and the famous Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31. (The program stated “Op. 3,” but a cellist would have been needed for that early work.)

Gagliano’s Chopin is, of course, technically superb; she did not win the 2020 Miami Chopin Competition without leaving technical problems in the practice room. More importantly, her musicianship brings life to the notes. The colors she brought to the set of Mazurkas, her pedaling creating pastel images in shifting tonal sonorities, were proof that she is no ordinary pianist. The conclusion of the G-minor Ballade directs the player to play “as loud as possible” (il più forte possibile) and “very fast, with fire” (Presto con fuoco): Gagliano did all that, and more. There were no harsh sonorities from tempting overexuberance, but rather observance of the inner accents which Chopin marks to clearly delineate the internal melodies within the fiery conclusion. It brought the audience (regrettably small, but enthusiastic) to its feet for the first of two standing ovations for a brilliant performance.

After a brief intermission came the second Sonata, with its opening two and concluding movements added to the earlier funeral march which gave this work its nickname. Amidst all her electric playing, Gagliano’s reading of the enigmatic Finale was perhaps the best. Its flying sotto voce octaves unblurred by pedaling (Chopin calls for none until the final measure), it showed her total dynamic control of the Smedes Hall Steinway.

The concluding Scherzo (in Chopin’s hands, more serious music than the light character which the title “joke” suggests) summed up this artist’s stature at this point in her journey. Her dynamic control was equal to Chopin’s directions, ranging from pianissimo to fortississimo; her ability to bring out the inner melody of the “suddenly much slower, sotto voce legato” section brought warmth and color before the work moved again to be played “with much fire.” The Scherzo’s concluding pages let Gagliano revel in that Chopinesque bravura writing, the speed increasing as the music reaches its final chords by way of a four-octave chromatic sequence, with accents as the composer demands. Gagliano’s wonderful performance of this beloved music brought the day’s second standing ovation, well-deserved.

Congratulations to Dr. Mark Fountain, President of the Paderewski Festival, to Prof. Wibrowski, and the other members of the festival’s leadership for bringing rising pianistic stars such as Gagliano to Raleigh. Our lives continue to be enriched by your efforts.