The Steinway Piano Gala is a sure sign that another Eastern Music Festival season – the 44th – has rolled around. For many years, the gala was its only outreach concert, formerly taken to Elon University and High Point, in addition to Dana Auditorium. This time, all the pianists were faculty members, and are worthy recital and concerto soloists.

The switch to Steinway pianos in the late 1990s brought major improvements to every aspect of the performances. This time the instruments were unique – three of the famous pianos heard in the Triangle at Meredith as part of a national tour were present. On stage in Dana on July 1 were concert grand pianos long played by Vladimir Howowitz and Van Cliburn; the former, with its lid up and keyboard facing left, was behind the latter, lidless, and with its keyboard facing right.

The 24th Caprice, in a minor, composed by Niccolò Paganini, has furnished the starting theme for many composers, including Witold Lutoslawski. His Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941), for two pianos, was given an alert and crisply executed performance by Gideon Rubin and Yoshikazu Nagai. They brought out what one commentator has called “almost a parody” of previous treatments. Bright and harsh twists were juxtaposed with a blissfully gentle variation and one that seemed a steady march, and the set ended with a breathless, bravure dash.

Robert Schumann’s mercurial Carnaval, Op. 9, received a most unusual presentation. Normally a piece for solo piano – CVNC reviewed a fine ECU performance by the former EMF Music Director, André Michel Schub – its twenty-some miniature character pieces were shared among four pianists, in turn. While one played a short piece on one of the two pianos, another discreetly slipped into place at the other keyboard. Logan Skelton began on the Cliburn piano followed by Nagai on the Horowitz, Rubin on the Cliburn, James Giles on the Horowitz, etc. It was fascinating to hear Schumann’s little musical portraits sketched with such a shuffle of both pianos and pianists with so many subtle differences of timbre and touch. In remarks before the performance, Giles recalled that in 1921 twenty pianists undertook to play each piece alone as part of a benefit concert for an ailing musician.

Gorgeous blending of color, alert attacks, and tight ensemble were the dominating virtues of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56b, as performed by Nagai and Giles. The tempos were unrushed, and great care was given to fine gradations of dynamics. Their perfect meshing evoked the sonority of the orchestral version.

In a departure from past piano galas, faculty orchestra players joined pianists Skelton and Rubin for a winning performance of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. The extras were violinists Courtney LeBauer and Annemieke Milks, violist Suzanne Rousso, cellist Lawrence Stomberg, double-bassist Dacy Gillespie, flutist Brian Gordon, clarinetist Shannon Scott, and percussionists Kris Keeton and Todd Quinlan. In Carnival of the Animals, quotations from other composers receive humorous treatment. Offenbach’s can-can is turned into a slow dance for tortoises, and the elephants trip the not-so-light fantastic to Berlioz’s “Ballet of the Will-o’-the-Wisps,” from The Damnation of Faust. Gillespie bowed her bass deeply and with humor and style as she evoked the pachyderms. Traditionally, the clarinetist leaves the stage to do the cuckoo, but the Dana folks turned up a flock – extra clarinetists were scattered all about the stage, at the back of the hall, and – I believe – in the balcony. What a surprise, and how effective! Stomberg’s warm-toned “Swan” barely left a wake. This would be an ideal concert to issue on a festival CD.

I should have had faith. There were many chairs on the stage, but I guessed – wrongly – that the concert was over, although previous piano galas have ended with over-the-top renditions of Horowitz’s arrangement of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” with all the participants joining in the fun. As I left the hall, those familiar notes began to ring out….

For a list of the EMF’s concerts, click here [inactive 11/05].