Back in 1990, a young pianist and scholar in Greensboro tossed a pebble into a decorative pond near the UNCG Music Department’s old building. There can’t have been many ripples, but it was, as they say, a beginning. The pianist’s name was John Salmon, and apparently he had a big sack of stones to throw, because that first event, which happened to center on Schubert, and at which Robert McDonald was the guest artist and Karl Schleunes, the lecturer, became an annual thing, more or less. Across the intervening years Salmon – pretty much single-handedly – has coordinated a dozen end-of-season events centering on piano literature that have drawn increasingly larger crowds and increasingly greater praise. A fellow named Bilson – Malcolm Bilson – was on hand the next year, when the focus was on Mozart. Spanish keyboard art came next, followed by weekends (mostly) devoted to Grieg, Debussy (with Daniel Ericourt), Bartók, Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel, and Brahms (with Joseph Kalichstein). When, working for another paper, we finally got the word and showed up for the first time, in 1998, the subject was Haydn, and the guest artist was Bilson’s distinguished student Andrew Willis, who had already made a big name for himself as a participant with his teacher and a flock of other fortepianists with ties to Cornell in “original instruments” performances (and recordings) of all the Beethoven sonatas – several nights of which were played at Duke before the whole series was given in New York. The following year, Abbey Simon headlined the event, playing Chopin. Year 11 focused on “new works” and involved commissioned pieces by seven living, breathing composers. For reasons that were never very clear (maybe involving all those modern things, but on the other hand perhaps Salmon simply needed a break), there wasn’t a “Focus on Piano Literature” (the title of the annual symposia) in 2001. But this year, from June 6-8, Salmon brought back “Focus” with a vengeance, concentrating on Beethoven with a dash of Schubert thrown in as an encore and showcasing Bilson and Willis (who is now on the faculty at UNCG) and a bevy of other distinguished artist-scholars, including UNC-Chapel Hill-trained William Meredith, who for 17 years has headed the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University. Overall it was, quite simply, one of the finest such undertakings we’ve ever attended.

Now as anyone who has immersed himself/herself in any sort of festival knows, events like UNCG’s “Focus” can be intense and tiring for all concerned, and this one packed a lot into two full days and three nights. Those who, elsewhere, have tried to stay awake while scholarly papers of any kind are “read” know all too well that such “readings” can be deadly in the extreme. Some papers were presented in Greensboro this time, but generally they were delivered well, and the readings were from time to time broken by musical examples, so we saw few people nodding off. It may be worth noting at the outset that this “Focus” on Beethoven was extremely well attended and that there were few empty seats in the new music building’s recital hall, even for the 9:00 a.m. sessions. We don’t often review the crowds at musical events, but in this case it may be worth noting, too, that except during some rather heated panel discussions and question-and-answer periods, this was an unusually attentive and quiet bunch of folks whose principal noise-making devices seemed to be scores – lots of them, in the hands of lots of people. The attendees, who came from all over the country and beyond (one registrant was from Hong Kong), seemed united in their interest in the subject and the presentations in a way that made, say, your conventional symphony pops crowd seem downright uncouth. Perhaps one reason for this is that the “Focus” people were mostly pianists, teachers and scholars.

Have no fear, dear readers – we will not comment on every tied quarter note, although score reading and interpretation were among the topics covered. The event got off to a great start with a recital on June 6, launched by Willis, who realized the “Hammerklavier” Sonata on an 1841 Bösendorfer piano that was constructed along the same lines as that company’s first commercial product, produced in 1828 – just a year after Beethoven died. For our money, Willis is one of our nation’s leading fortepianists; we rejoice at his presence here, in the Tar Heel State, and we make this claim concerning his artistic prowess despite the presence on this year’s “Focus” roster of his equally distinguished mentor, Bilson. That said, we were not enamored of the sound of this particular instrument, the voicing of which differs markedly from register to register as, we were reminded, was typical of pianos of that period. What was interesting – fascinating, really – was hearing this huge sonata, in which Beethoven pushed the envelope far more than in any of his other keyboard compositions, played on a piano that was so close to the composer, in terms of its design and manufacture. Like a few other Beethoven works, however, this one seemed simply too large for the instrument used. The slow movement was extraordinary, by any standard, but some of the rest came close to overloading the Bösendorfer.

Willis was followed by Salmon, who played a Bagatelle (Op. 126/3) that led almost immediately into the Sonata No. 31. These were given on a modern Kawai, with (we thought) a somewhat brittle, often overly-bright top. The contrast with the Bösendorfer was extreme, but again the music shone through brilliantly, demonstrating that it’s the music, more than the medium, that matters. Now that said, Salmon did add a few twists of his own in his interpretations, twists that the score-followers among us (or the pianists in attendance who had played these works themselves) noticed immediately, and that those who had looked ahead in their conference packets to see what was coming up the next day might have anticipated. The most glaring “enhancement,” introduced in the Sonata, involved a brief bit of improvisation, tastefully done, that caused one attendee near us to gasp, “What is he doing ?” The answer, as Salmon explained in detail during his lecture on June 7, was that he had pondered WWBD (to borrow an acronym) and decided that, at that juncture, a bit of ad libbing was in order. For us, it worked. For purists, it may have been tantamount to sacrilege. And in the context of this splendid symposium, it was just what the good Dr. (Salmon) must have had in mind.

Bilson and Meredith gave back-to-back talks the following morning that were nominally different but touched on many similar themes. For us, the biggest deal in Bilson’s remarks came when he stated that “Every piano is limited” so he tries to downplay the instrument’s (or instruments’) role(s) in the overall scheme of things. He talked about the components of “good” performances and gave many examples of differing approaches. He addressed score-reading in some detail, reminding us that perspectives on musical notation have changed over time. Excerpts from a series of recordings by some big-name players who shall remain nameless here served as the icing on the cake: some were close to the money, but others were truly laughable, heard in the context of Bilson’s remarks. He also had a few things to say about competitions and the cookie-cutter products they seem to favor.

Meredith, who brought with him a fascinating assortment of Beethoven items – including a lock of Beethoven’s hair, early editions of scores, and so on – that were on display throughout the event, spoke about key characteristics and relationships in Beethoven’s music, reminding us along the way that, radical as Beethoven is thought to have been, almost everything was based on something from before, so there is, he averred, nothing new, in the strictest sense, in his music. Like Bilson, he voiced some concerns about the cookie-cutter products of our big-name conservatories and schools of music.

A performance of the Trio in B-Flat, Op. 11, by pianist Andrew Hawley, clarinetist Kelly Burke and cellist Beth Vanderborgh served as a palette cleanser before the noon break. Readers of cvnc will recognize the names of the clarinetist and cellist, for sure.

The afternoon sessions included Salmon’s presentation on “Improvising in Beethoven,” which he’d demonstrated convincingly (to us, at least) the night before. The research and reflection on Beethoven’s music by Salmon, who is an outstanding jazz player as well as a mainline classical artist, resulted in an impressive list of occasions when Beethoven was known to have improvised and a tabulation of places in Beethoven’s music where improvisation may have been likely. This was followed by a somewhat tedious presentation by Willis on the notion of freedom in Beethoven that was relieved by a reading of an obscure Klavierstück (WoO 60) and a ravishing performance on an 1869 Steinway of the Fantasia, Op. 77, which would appear to be a good example, in Beethoven’s own hand, of the sort of improvisation that Salmon had also addressed. An expanded version of an article in the April 2002 edition of Clavier , read by its author, George Kiorpes (whose arthritis prevented his playing during this year’s “Focus”), with musical examples provided by Willis, brought the afternoon to a close.

The whole notion of “periods” in Beethoven came up in the lectures, too, but the terms are in such common currency that we’ll probably continue to use them, despite their woeful inadequacies. With that in mind…, the evening’s concert consisted of a recital by Bilson that embraced early, middle and late sonatas (Nos. 1, 19 and 28) plus the Bagatelles, Op. 33. For the first sonata and the bagatelles, Bilson used a five-octave copy of a 1795 Walter instrument, made in 1996 by Chris Maene; for the other two sonatas, he used a restored 6-1/2 octave 1835 instrument by Joseph Simon, a student of Conrad Graf, one of whose pianos was owned by Beethoven. There were extensive notes by the artists for all three evening programs, and Bilson’s reminded us that it was for an instrument of this type (Simon’s having been modeled on Graf’s) that Beethoven wrote his last five sonatas.

There were revelations with every page-turn, for Bilson isn’t an artist who learns a piece and then plays it the same way forever. As he made clear in these performances and in his remarks during the sessions, he is constantly studying and reexamining his approaches to the scores he plays. We’ve had the pleasure of hearing him before, and we have always been impressed, but this time he rose, in our view, considerably above his customary high standard. Who can account for performances like this one? Was it the weather, the environment indoors, in the company of a large group of pianists, teachers, and piano cognoscenti, or the fact that he clearly felt comfortable and at ease at UNCG? He was so at ease, incidentally, and so content with the acoustics of the space, that, while he was in town, he was recording some Schubert that will be part of an ongoing CD edition.

Like the night before, there was contrast between the two instruments. There was also, by virtue of the use of those two pianos, some enhancement of the awareness of how Beethoven’s piano music “grew” as the instruments to which he had access were “enhanced” over time. Anyway, this was playing of a very high order in which the music was brought convincingly to life before our very ears, to the great delight of the audience. The opening movement of Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor, D.958, written in 1828 and given without its repeat (repeats were a topic of somewhat limited discussion, too), served as the program’s encore.

In some respects, the last day of “Focus” took on the trappings of a variety show. Meredith got things underway with a revealing discussion of Beethoven’s “bizarreness” as manifested in his music. In the process, he underscored the fact that the meaning of words, like the meaning of musical notations, have changed over the centuries, and that “bizarre” didn’t mean, in Beethoven’s time, what it means now. It all made perfect sense, of course, much as master classes almost always result in “superior” playing, so after Meredith told us how peculiar and in a sense radical the finale of the Second Symphony is (for example), then it was clear that it really is. Think about the relationships of vocal music to some of Beethoven’s best-known works (and we’re not talking about vocal works ) and you will begin to get an idea of this concept; an intensely familiar example is the “recitative” that is played by the double basses at the beginning of the finale of the Choral Symphony. Meredith’s talk also included quotes from contemporaneous music criticism that was a good deal less nervous-making for yours truly than some other sessions we’ve attended!

A BBC Beethoven video in which Meredith appears and a film of Myra Hess playing the first movement of the “Appassionata” Sonata (and thus marking her only appearance in Greensboro this season) closed out the morning. The afternoon’s sessions encompassed grad students Juan Pablo Andrade and Elizabeth Lopartis playing for Bilson and receiving his sometimes critical commentary – they were brave, and he was honest – which, come to think of it, is preferable to a lot of fluff, isn’t it? A panel discussion involving Bilson, Meredith, Salmon, and questions from the audience allowed for some revisiting of controversial points and the introduction of some new themes. Those who may be interested in what we used to call “conference tapes” – they are CDs now – may contact the UNCG Department of Music.

The last concert program, revised late in the game, involved Joseph Di Piazza and Paul Stewart, both of UNCG, in one bagatelle and one sonata per each – the Bagatelle in D, Op. 119/3, and Sonata No. 7, followed by “Für Elise” and Sonata No. 13. The Kawai was used, and the performances were fairly typical of mainline approaches to Beethoven. Di Piazza began his Sonata like a house afire but got things under control quickly. Stewart, who is Chair of UNCG’s Keyboard Division, delivered the goods in ways that would probably have elicited raves had the readings not come so closely on the heels of folks like Willis and Salmon and Bilson….

The grand finale involved the whole crowd of artists, playing nearly every piano on the stage, in a bit of extended nonsense centering on the Turkish March, from The Ruins of Athens. In this there were, as Beecham said in a different context, a triangle and “a big drum and a little drum” but mercifully not “all the other damned drums” that might have been brought forth. It made for a noisy ending, after which Salmon & Co. hosted an ice cream social for all. Bravo! We can hardly wait for next year’s edition. Hummmmm. Beethoven will be tough to trump. What will the focus of “Focus… 2003” be?