On October 26 at 7:30 p.m., a UNC faculty recital, the first of five concerts this week, opened UNC’s Music Department‘s weeklong focus on etudes in the UNC Etude Festival in what is definitely a creative idea of a largely ignored topic. Ten faculty members performed fourteen etudes ranging between 1830 and the mid-20th century. These tonal compositions, reflecting Romantic and late-Romantic styles, depicted a wide range of moods and techniques. Some of the faculty performers drew on etudes they learned as students. Etudes serve as a vehicle in which a student concentrates on an aspect of technique through its repetition throughout the short study. Donald L. Oehler aptly described a common attitude towards etudes – opening pandora’s box, in commenting that teachers often dislike teaching this literature as much as do students having to learn etudes. Musicians, in general, either love ’em or hate ’em.

Oehler, a clarinetist who traces his own music lineage back to Cyrille Rose, a famous 19th-century performer and composer of etudes, chose two etudes: A. Gabucci’s Sixty Divertimenti No. 1, C. Rose’s Thirty-Two Etudes for Clarinet No 5. Gabucci’s etude, showing alacrity and clarity of runs, brought out Oehler’s deft handling of this technique over wide ranges of the instrument in a musical way. The other two, being slow and expressive, demonstrated his enormous control of breath in tapering the dynamics and phrases, and in producing rich tones throughout the registers that were especially clear in the upper octaves.

Derison Duarte, pianist, tackled Chopin’s Etude in C Minor, Op. 10 No 12, which is a tour de force for the left-hand fingers, and executed it with virtuosic flair and vigor. Duarte commented that if Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues can be termed the Old Testament, then Chopin’s Etudes stand as the New Testament.

Brent Wissick, cellist, chose two etudes from Sebastian Lee’s Forty Melodic and Progressive Etudes for Cello, Op. 31, No. 4 Scherzo and No. 13 Theme and Variations that were written for the Paris Conservatory students. In these two contrasting etudes, Wissick added wonderful flair and phrasing to the Scherzo and clarity in passage work that swept the strings clean and made use of emphatic double-stops – all with a beautiful tone and musicianship.

Michael Kris, trombonist, issued forth a rich, mellow tone casting the phrases musically in No. 1 from Douze études mélodiques pour trombone tenor by Henri Büssser, a contemporary of Debussy.

Juan Álamo, marimbist, closed the instrumental portion of the program with three etudes: Mussers’ Etude in C Major, Op. 6, No. 10, Keiko Abe‘s Frogs – Etude for Four Mallets, and Pius Cheung‘s Etude in E Minor. The coordination of four mallets to produce either rolled chords or two sets of double stops, intricately changing the widths of the two mallets in each hand to accommodate changing intervals appears to be wizardry. The sounds rolling out of the instrument were exquisite, with well-defined melodies. His powerfully-controlled dynamics revealed an enormous depth of skill. Álamo shared that Abe and Cheung are two of the important contemporary composers for marimba.

The singers presented the remainder of the program. Arsenia Brickley, soprano, delivered Messiaen’s Vocalise-étude with long expressive breaths and portrayed drama in sound. Some feeling sounds communicated intensity and sadness in the setting of the minor key and a setting of a particularly wide range of notes.

Likewise, Timothy Sparks, tenor, singing Fauré’s Vocalise-étude, produced so many rich tonal colors and dynamics that sounded like a dialogue that he painted a textless tonal picture of heroic proportions through an amazing use of his voice. I drifted so deeply into his painting of feelings that I almost saw him in costume.

Andrea Edith Moore, soprano, immersed herself in Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14, the oft-transcribed piece for many instruments. Showing much breath control, her richly sensuous tone consistently outlasted Rachmaninoff’s phrasing marks.

Louise Toppin, soprano, capped off this program of delightful listening with the second and final Allegro movement of Concerto in F Minor, Op. 82 by Glière. (I was surprised to learn that a concerto for voice exists!) Toppin’s ability to connect with the audience and her delectable coloratura staccatos in this light-hearted movement was like eating a truffle at the end of a fine meal.

Thomas Otten, pianist and coordinator of UNC’s Etude Festival, and Deborah Hollis, pianist, provided sensitive accompaniments in etudes as needed.

Unlike previous festivals in the department, this one is scaled down from earlier extravaganza focuses. Otten announced at the beginning of the concert that they didn’t have time to write their intended program notes, and instead asked the performers to say a few words, which most did. He failed to mention the purpose of the etude week, which would have been helpful to hear.

This mostly unresearched topic raises many questions. With only one dissertation, “A History of the Violin Etude to about 1800” (1965) by K. Marie Stolba, much remains unanswered. Is the etude a teaching tool only of the past? Is it a viable tool for the future? What would a survey of past uses of the etude reveal? Does the 19th-century tradition of preluding before the beginning of a concert pass as an etude? Will modern digital technology change teaching enough that something else will take its place? These are issues I would have enjoyed hearing about, but alas, that is not possible given the lack of research into etudes.

It really is remarkable that the UNC Etude Festival has pulled together as many etude recitals as it has for this week. The audience made up mostly of students from the teachers’ studios (and sprinkled with a few townspeople) thoroughly enjoyed hearing their professors perform etudes

Further events this week include two student etude recitals mid-week, and two etude recitals next weekend presenting the premiere of Leslie Adams Piano Etudes, Parts One and Two and featuring Maria Corley and Thomas Otten, pianists. These new etudes, composed for pianists of different levels of development, present different technical challenges infused with his personal sense of beauty and his American orientation and European background.

Four more events remain in this mini-festival. Two are free. Those on November 1 & 2 carry $15 general admission prices but one ticket is good for both of those concerts. For details, see the sidebar.