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Dexter Ruffin was hailed as a prodigy by the Wilmington Star-News in 1987, reporting on the thirteen-year-old's preparation of eleven pieces for a major recital at Barton College. A native of Wilson, Ruffin's early piano studies, with Nancy Ping-Robbins, were underwritten by an anonymous donor. Ruffin went on to study with Dr. Henry Doskey at ECU and Eric Larsen at the NC School of the Arts, where he received a B.A. in piano performance in 2009. He has returned to his roots, now serving as Music Minister at St. Timothy's Church (Episcopal) in Wilson.
Dexter Ruffin sat down at the 1887 Steinway grand in John O'Brien's Music House and played an entire recital from memory. His powerful and highly pianistic playing filled the room with rich sound. He began with Bach's Toccata in G Minor, S.915; one tiny missed note in the opening solo passage is easily forgiven. Once the forgivable was over with, Ruffin settled into his work with willing heart and fingers. The toccata section of this piece, a little more than half, was taken as one continuous through-composition. A very brief pause defined the beginning of the second half, a fugal gigue. A tiny memory slip was smoothed over most gracefully, with no interruption of tempo.
Beethoven's Sonata Op 31, No. 3, offered full scope to Ruffin's powerful playing. His technique allows him to bring forth fortissimo without even lifting his hands from the keyboard or making any wild gestures or exaggerated expressions. At the end of the first movement, Allegro, Ruffin demonstrated in a most remarkable way how to play the piano without touching the keys. The emotional transition – just the right silence – from the Allergo to the Scherzo was perfect, delectable. The Scherzo, Allegretto Vivace, sounded a lot like Scarlatti under Ruffin's fingers. I would have preferred the following Menuetto. Moderato e grazioso to have been a little more tranquil, but it was certainly musical enough. The final Presto con fuoco was truly afire, befitting its name. Ruffin's drive and power are unremitting.
Following the usual nom-nom wine tasting and hors d'oeuvres (prepared tonight by Anne Searl), Ruffin sat right down to Chopin's Fantasy, Op. 49, which flowed from his fingers with power and nuance.
Ruffin concluded the evening with Ferruccio Busoni's arrangement of Bach's Prelude and Fugue from the Clavier-Übung III, S.552. Busoni's arrangement and Ruffin's extremely pianistic interpretation transformed this piece of Baroque spiritual music into a bombastic and powerful exercise demonstrating the incredible skill of the performer. Ruffin's powerful playing managed to exploit the full dynamic range of the Steinway.
This gentle young man has incredible power and talent in his hands. In the human scale setting of the Music House, surrounded by friends old and new, Ruffin gave the audience what they wanted to hear; the SRO crowd jumped to its feet in praise when the concert was finished.
I am a little puzzled by Ruffin's choice of instruments – or maybe by Ruffin's choice of music. The Music House may be the only venue in the state where a stab could be made at playing each of these pieces on the instrument for which it was conceived; it is, as well, probably the only venue in eastern North Carolina where a historically-informed performance of each would be appreciated. There is a fine harpsichord that would have made the Bach toccata sparkle. There is a Mozart-period fortepiano much closer in style to Beethoven's instrument than the Steinway, which (until the big square piano in the front parlor is restored) would have to do for the Chopin. Then the Steinway could come into its own for the Busoni. Historically informed performances make sense; the naïve belief that there is no keyboard instrument but the modern grand piano makes sense only in the smug egocentric world of the modern pianist. I hope Ruffin's skills will continue to grow and that he reaches out to a wider and more appropriate choice of instruments. He is a brilliant performer.