The Eastern Music Festival opened its 61st season this week with a plethora of chamber music and orchestra concerts, including a Signature Piano Recital by the brilliant virtuoso and long-standing faculty member, William Wolfram, in Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College.

Three great pianists, Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, born within two years of each other, are now remembered as outstanding composers, enlarging and enriching the piano repertory, and in the case of long-lived Liszt (1811-1886), participating actively in the innovation of the “New Music” of his time, notably in the spheres of composition related to Richard Wagner. (Another contemporary innovator, the Frenchman Hector Berlioz, 1803-1869, was a guitarist and left no significant works for piano, preferring to expand the forces of the symphony orchestra.)

A brief pre-concert welcome to the sparse but enthusiastic audience informed us that the program order had been changed and that “there may be an intermission or not – we shall see!” Of course, this provoked a lot of second guessing, but in hindsight, the changed order made good sense as the program seemed to flow nicely from formalistic (Chopin, 1810-1849) to sentimental (Schumann, 1810-1854) to fantastic (Liszt).

Of Chopin’s three sonatas, the second (Sonata No. 2, Opus 35, in B-flat minor) is the probably the best known, due largely to the popularity of the third movement, the Funeral March, which was actually composed a year before the rest of the sonata. There was a moment in last night’s performance where the beauty and simplicity of the shortest modulation in music (a simple pivotal A-flat octave) from B-flat minor to D-flat opened a new and mysterious world, far from funereal! The closing Presto (fourth movement) was a carefully controlled rush, helter-skelter, ending with a musical shiver.

Granting the audience only one bow, the imposing Professor Wolfram sat and tuned us in to Robert Schumann, as though it were already playing and we perceived the tune mid-phrase, as it got closer to our minds. Although Schumann calls his piece Humoreske, Opus 20, there is not much overt humor in it, but alluding to the “four humors” or temperaments, one might say the 25-minute piece is moody and fast-paced. The first of the seven movements, “Einfach,” (simple) is also the longest and the moodiest, sometimes sounding like “The Happy Farmer” and sometimes like “longing for the unreachable.”

With the remaining six movements, Wolfram navigated through moods, tempos, and keys (mostly B-flat and its relative minor, G minor), bearing titles like “Innig,” (“Intimate”), “Mit einigem Pomp” (“With a Bit of Pomp”), and “Zum Beschluss” (“In Conclusion”). It is intriguing that Schumann, with his free and somewhat rambling style, provides guidelines for the performer by giving metronome markings, while Chopin and Liszt provided none for their pieces! (Of course, it is up to the performer to follow or ignore these hints – as long as the result is expressive!)

The third work on the program, Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata (“After Reading Dante: Fantasy in the Form of a Sonata”) by Franz Liszt, refers to the lengthy pilgrimage Liszt and the Countesse d’Agoult took in Italy. The piece opens with bold stark descending tritones, the “Devil’s interval,” an immediate musical reminder of Dante’s Purgatory and Inferno. The excellent program notes by Dr. Cat Keen Hock describe how a contrasting theme representing the condemned Francesca da Rimini transforms the unholy tritone “into the holy interval of the perfect fifth.”

Wolfram has recorded many of Liszt’s works (Naxos), including some of his transcriptions of operas, especially Wagner’s. He was clearly at the top of his game in this 17-minute tone poem, filled with wondrous sounds – a dream section followed by a diabolical storm; dialogues in the left hand, tremolos as soft as whispers, whole tone scales, bi-tonal passages (two keys playing at the same time) – Liszt was ingenious and imaginative. Wolfram was powerful, even diabolical! And the audience was appreciative, rising together in a standing ovation. We were rewarded with a Chopin Mazurka from the Opus 67 – such simplicity!

The Eastern Music Festival continues with a dozen concerts per week through July! See our calendar for upcoming events.