The debut of a “new” piano is always a major event in the lives of music lovers who are enriched by its presence. On October 15, in Greensboro, a crowd of such folks had an opportunity to experience a “new” instrument in an altogether admirable venue – the sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church. The “operator” was Andrew Willis, who has been enriching the lives of culture buffs in NC for a long time. He first commanded our attention when, with a flock of other protégés of Cornell’s Malcolm Bilson, he played Beethoven on “original instruments” at Duke – before a run of the complete sonatas in New York and elsewhere. Willis’ arrival at UNCG surprised some people because he seemed to be a big fish in a smallish pond, but on the other hand UNCG’s keyboard division has been “big time” for a long time, so Willis fit right in – and became yet another jewel in a glittering crown. And he’s not just a musty “old piano” person. He’s a scholar who can play – a musician whose work is informed but not constrained by his scholarship. This was perhaps more apparent during this Chopin and Fauré program than on any previous occasion. His playing was consistently superb, his technical prowess and musicianship and interpretive skills were of the highest imaginable order, and his program brought revelation after revelation, at every turn.

He played his “new” piano, too, a lovely-to-look-at, lovely-to-hear Pleyel grand, built in Paris in 1848. It has those wonderful old-fashioned, fat legs that used to grace pianos, furniture, bathtubs, and such. It has little lid inside its main lid that some specialists think might have been a dust cover but that may also serve as a resonating chamber of sorts and almost certainly helps redirect some of the sound. It’s a honey of a piano that Willis found in Holland a couple of years ago.

The date tells us that it was made a year before Chopin died, and Willis’ notes tell us that when the composer was feeling up to snuff, physically, he played one of Pleyel’s pianos. Fauré was born three years before this instrument was made, so it’s altogether possible that he knew and used pianos just like it – or certainly similar to it. All this would be moot if the instrument were not in good shape, but it sounds as wonderful as it looks, and Willis made it sing as he played mostly short pieces, juxtaposing nocturnes and barcarolles by both masters – after an introductory Chopin impromptu – in ways that brought tremendous rewards to the grateful and enthusiastic audience. The pieces dated from 1830 or so to 1922 but, heard in the context Willis devised, there were more similarities than differences. And of course they were united, as it were, by the warmth and subtlety of the instrument, which is radically different from the high-tension brilliance of today’s behemoths, designed to fill vast concert halls. It made one wonder… which came first, the piano or the music? There can be no firm answer to that, but it is clear that developments in instruments led to more and more ambitious works for them. For reasons I cannot fully explain, the Fauré pieces seemed more effective on this piano than the Chopin selections. I suspect that’s because we hear more Chopin on “modern” pianos, and because Fauré’s piano music is, in general, somewhat less well known…. At this Music for a Great Space program, which involved Willis and other outstanding UNCG-based artists and teachers, the attendees were taken on a journey back in time to a softer, gentler era. It was quite an evening.

The grand finale was Fauré’s First Piano Quartet, for which Willis was joined by violinist John Fadial, violist Scott Rawls, and cellist Brooks Whitehouse. These string players are all world-class artists, too, yet they played as one well-oiled (19th century) machine. The piece is a personal favorite that I’ve savored since childhood. The performance was exceptional, as one might have expected – although there are no guarantees, of course, since every reading is different. The gentler-than-usual voice of the piano facilitated hearing the music in new ways, allowing the string parts to emerge with atypical clarity. There were no weaknesses – how many times does one read that in a review? – and many strengths, including perhaps most notably Rawls’ “middle voice” (a play, of sorts, on the name of his 2003 CD, Middle Voices). The occasion clearly inspired all the participants to play at high levels, and the response of the audience was prolonged and heartfelt.

It may be worth noting that Willis has taken over leadership of UNCG’s long-running “Focus on…” piano festivals and that Whitehouse aims to create a series of similar gatherings for cello aficionados. CVNC will provide details of these pending second-semester events in due course. For now, the collaboration of these two artists here and on other occasions – and the involvement of their like-minded colleagues – is at once noteworthy and news-worthy. The partnership of UNCG and MGS is noteworthy, too – the Dean of the School of Music is the spouse of the series’ Executive Director. Long may their work continue!