Need to find a big talent? Try a small college. That approach certainly proved effective when UNC Chapel Hill sponsored a memorable recital by an assistant professor at the University of Central Missouri.
Her name is Tian Tian You heard it here first, but don't count on it being the last time. This Chinese-born pianist, who earned two degrees from the Juilliard School and a doctorate from the Eastman School, may be going places.
That fine pedigree was fully exposed in her program, which was remarkable for its balance of beauty and sheer knuckle-busting virtuosity.
Virtuosity that comes with beauty is why we all love the Chopin Études, and her program began with four of them. Many of the great composer-pianists wrote études, or studies, designed to challenge and strengthen one or another aspect of technique. But it was really only Chopin who could turn a finger-strengthening exercise into a marvel of ageless beauty.
The Études numbers two and four of Op. 10 are basically velocity exercises but have other demands as well. Dr. Tian played them with great power, tonal clarity, and superb articulation.
Among the most beautiful of Chopin's entire creative project is the Étude Op. 25, No. 7. Also known as the "Cello" etude, this is a left-hand study that surveys the piano's bass and tenor regions. Its mood is one of crushing sorrow, leavened with the occasional hint of hope and defiance. Tian's performance was beautifully voiced and possessed the finely-nuanced dynamics that distinguish a so-so performance from a truly fine one.
The étude set concluded with Op. 25, No. 11, the so-called "Winter Wind." Once again, brilliance arose from the meeting of flawless technique, fierce and fearless dynamic strength, and unfailing musicality.
Almost as if to say you ain't heard nothin' yet, Tian closed out her Chopin component with the breathtaking C-sharp minor Scherzo. Once again, the listener could not help but be impressed by the enormous sound she got out of that magnificently maintained Steinway grand in Hill Hall auditorium – with no deficit in either accuracy or musicality. The piece begins and ends with torrents of sound, but the contrasting sections were, in Tian's hands, as tender and graceful as the outer ones were furious.
The first half concluded with Ravel's La Valse. This audience favorite, a kind of homage to a dominant musical form in Old Vienna, exists in at least three incarnations: piano solo, piano duo, and an orchestral version. This listener confesses to finding tedium in all three. But give it its due: for solo piano at least, it is a dazzling virtuoso showpiece, full of explosive chords and shrieking glissandos. Tian was as fine a champion for its charms and challenges as I have heard.
After intermission the audience was served a delightful rendering of Beethoven's short Op. 79 Sonata. Although sometimes labeled a Sonatina, it is no easy piece. But it is one of Beethoven's truly joyful works for the piano, and Tian's interpretation illuminated in its playfulness. The soft pair of chords that conclude the piece evoked an image of a parent quietly switching off the light in a child's bedroom.
Finally came the heavy artillery: Rachmaninoff's intimidating Sonata No. 2. The work is both a hard-ridden warhorse and an ageless masterpiece – easily among the finest piano sonatas of the 20th century, "warhorse" because the sonata is ubiquitous at all the best-known piano competitions. At the Cliburn, especially, you can throw a dead squirrel in any direction and hit someone playing it.
Tian tore into it with the requisite power and passion, surrendering nothing in terms of smudged or missed notes. Even in Rachmaninoff's pared-down, 1931 revision of the 1913 original, the piece remains among the most challenging in the repertory. Even the exquisite slow movement contains tempests of sound. The work is so densely scored that voicing becomes perhaps the top interpretive priority. Tian was almost faultless in finding and maintaining the line.
An unfortunate but quickly-recovered memory lapse in the final movement provided the only mark on an otherwise stunning performance.
Permit a footnote: Hill Hall seats perhaps two or three hundred. I counted 25 seats taken at this free recital. Thanks to Professor Clara Yang for organizing this recital by her former Eastman classmate. But where were the rest of the music department and its faculty? There appeared to be a scattering of students and a few of us older types, and that was about it. When this reporter was in music school, back when the earth was cooling, the dean required every student to attend a set number of concerts and recitals per semester in order to get a grade. And I don't mean a handful, more like 20 events per semester. A lesson for you, UNC?