At the inception of the Clayton Piano Festival, artistic director Jonathan Levin endeavored to bring his love and passion for classical music to the masses of his rural hometown in Johnston County. Now, eight years later, as Clayton celebrates its 150th anniversary, the Clayton Piano Festival is doing just that. This year the festival brings a multitude of composers and musicians to four different venues across four different evenings of classical music performances. If you haven’t caught a performance yet, don’t worry – the grand finale is coming to the Clayton Center November 9th. With performances by Levin himself, an encore appearance by Joey Chang – the featured performer of the third evening in the festival – violinist Christin Danchi joining in, and Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin providing vocal performances as well as hosting the evening, Clayton at 150 is sure to be the pièce de résistance of this year’s festival.

In his program notes, Levin articulated his desire for the festival to “engage the audience in a personal way” – to present classical pieces such that even the least experienced concert goer would find some meaning in them. The inclusion of Chang’s original piano improvisations was the perfect complement to that effort. With personal introductions to each movement, Chang connected to an intimate audience in the first act of the evening. In a brief 30-minute sampling, Chang deftly improvised in the styles of Baroque, Blues, Modern, and even film compositions. Chang easily navigated between the diverse styles and provided just enough context for the audience to develop their own interpretations of his musical offerings.

Act II deepened the audience connection with a visual presentation that showcased Levin’s diverse abilities in photography and film. The second half of the evening’s performance opened with a short silent film of Levin’s creation that highlighted the beauty of the everyday sights in Clayton. Chang flexed his prowess with dynamics in the longest sustained improvisation of the evening. He explored interesting juxtapositions – quiet minor melodies during imagery of thunderstorms and almost dissonant, busy chords beneath a montage of sunflowers blowing in a breeze. These juxtapositions re-emerged in the final movement of the evening, culminating with a well-rounded repartee between Chang and the audience. As Chang read out notecards with audience suggestions, he improvised brief musical accompaniment to their varying memories and emotions. Ranging from comedic to evocative, Chang’s renditions conveyed his interpretations of “the Kennedy Assassination” – in deep, halting staccato notes; “the peach tree in my grandparents’ garden” – flowing with full melodies emphasized with accidentals evoking the fullness and tartness of a ripening peach; “Piano” – during which Chang simply closed the lid of his instrument and explored the strings beneath the lid, the pedals, even the wood, but never the keys.

Whether its audience were lifelong musicians or first-time classical consumers, Chang’s improvised piano concert provided a unique classical concert experience for all. His concise and personable conversation around each piece made the complexity of his classical performance accessible to even the newest of concertgoers. However, that isn’t to say Chang put the kid gloves on for the sake of accessibility. The synthesis of his Juilliard training showed in his precision even within highly complex creations. Chang emulated the styles of certain eras as well as layered elements of others to produce challenging work that would give seasoned musicians something to chew on as well.

Chang’s unique concert was an excellent lead-in for what is sure to be a thoughtful homage to the town and the music this festival’s founders treasure so dearly.

The Clayton piano festival returns to the city in which it was born for the culminating performance on November 9th. With a multi-media artistic focus and talented performers, the event is sure to offer something for everyone. See the sidebar for details.