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UNC is on a roll. Buildings are popping up like mushrooms. The campus-based public radio station exceeded its recent fund-raising goal by thousands of clams. The venerable campus continues to enjoy a healthy reputation. And good people continue to be engaged there. There are also problems. Good people continue to leave. The campus' healthy reputation is from time to time battered by bad news. Parking is at a premium. Still, it all balances out. And when UNC does things really well, it's hard to top 'em. One thing it's been doing really well recently is picking pianists. A little over a year ago, we reported on the debut of Thomas Otten, the first of the "new" pianists UNC is engaging to replace Michael Zenge, Barbara Rowan and Francis Whang. The second - Mayron Tsong - made her formal debut in Hill Hall on November 14, on the heels of a runout to Meredith College the previous Wednesday. Her recital, presented as part of the William S. Newman Artists Series - which, as most locals know, is named for UNC's great pianist, teacher and scholar, author of definitive studies of Beethoven and sonatas and much, much more - and the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies. This latter group was clearly involved because the program itself was dominated by Russian masters, but as it happened, the evening's offerings were wide-ranging, and they gave ample evidence of Tsong's artistic prowess and the wisdom of the selection committee.
The program began with Ravel's charming miniature, the "Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn" (1909), with which Tsong drew her audience into her sound-world. At its conclusion, without a pause, she launched into Haydn's Sonata No. 22, in D, H.XVI:24 (?1773), which she realized with remarkable skill, precision and clarity, eschewing, for the most part, use of the pedals. In one gulp, then, she displayed her command of French music and one of the landmarks of the classical era, and the overall results were - as would be the case throughout the evening - dazzling. It was curious to tie two such seemingly dissimilar scores in this manner, but doing so is not unprecedented, and indeed it was her fellow Canadian countryman Ray Kilburn, who put Peace College on the pianistic map during his tenure at that institution, who first joined up scores in unexpected ways here.
Most of the rest of the concert was devoted to Russian pieces - Prokofiev's Sarcasms (1912-14) and the Toccata (1912), three of Rachmaninov's Etudes-tableaux (two from the 1911 set and one from the 1916-17 volume), and Scriabin's Fifth Sonata (1907). The Sarcasms turn up rarely here, but they are stunning examples of what Prokofiev was later to project into his major orchestral works - in particular, Romeo and Juliet is prefigured in these pieces. The Rachmaninov group was a tantalizing sampler of what one can only hope will eventually be a performance of the complete sets by this outstanding artist. Scriabin remains a bit of an acquired taste but few have made his case with greater eloquence, and in saying this I realize I place Tsong in exalted company.
There were no notes, and the artist spoke only about Jean Coulthard's Aegean Sketches (1961), which were dedicated to Bachauer. They are Greek in the sense that Lawrence Durrell's books are Greek - they are impressions of Greece by a non-native (Canadian, in Coulthard's case). That said, some of the best Spanish music is by French composers, and these Sketches are splendid works that one may only hope will be repeated here by UNC's new person.
Prokofiev's Toccata brought the evening to a brilliant conclusion. There was a standing ovation - virtually meaningless as given in, say, Raleigh, but significant in Chapel Hill, where such things are not automatic. Tsong is a real find.
And how did she play? Well, she has technique to burn and - based on this program - artistry and feeling and sensibility to match. She brought the Sarcasms to vibrant life in ways that evoked memories of the composer's own solo piano recordings, of which there are far too few. Her Rachmaninov suggested the power of Horowitz and, later, Berman, but the sound she produced, while rich and full, was never loud for loudness' sake, so one never had the impression that any part of the performance was for mere show. Instead, she made the works live and breathe as if they were being created before our very eyes and ears, and it was no surprise that her playing of these pieces, which ended the first half of the program, resulted in her being recalled several times for bows, even then. The Scriabin was every bit as impressive, and that's a tall order, since the music is much less familiar. It's a quirky piece, any way you cut it, with mercurial mood and tempo and dynamic shifts throughout. Again, Tsong delivered - and the composer's intent was brilliantly revealed. The Canadian score followed, and the Toccata capped the program, which ended around 9:25 p.m. It seemed one of the shortest concerts of the season, so spellbinding was the playing. Hill wasn't full this time, but the next time she plays, it might be prudent to arrive early, for word of this new UNC pianist will surely spread in the wake of her impressive debut.