NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND ‌ Ivory Idyll 

Piano fans have it good in Chucktown

No wonder the piano is the world's favorite instrument: it offers the best one-stop foundation in music theory you can get, and you can do pretty much anything with it: play it alone, with an orchestra, or in support of other musicians. Besides the organ, it's the closest thing to having a whole orchestra at your fingertips. And you can put on one of music's best one-person shows with it.

It all began with Franz Liszt -- the greatest pianist of his day, the Elvis of the mid-1800's. He dazzled crowds with his own flashy music -- stuff that only he could play. Giddy women drenched their hankies and swooned at his keyboard melodramatics. He even began the custom of turning the piano sideways, so the audience could see his profile as he played. With Liszt, the cult of the virtuoso pianist was born. And, boy, did he ever get the girls.

Even now, hearing a really good pianist at work can be one of the most thrilling and satisfying small-scale musical events you could hope for. There's a monster repertoire of great piano music out there. There are also scads of terrific pianists out there to perform it -- and we've heard more than our fair share of the best around here.

The College of Charleston has offered solid piano training for decades. But it stepped things up several notches in 1989 with the arrival of Enriqué Graf, Charleston's first world-renowned resident virtuoso and piano pedagogue. Graf lost little time tapping into his starry personal network. By 1990, his International Piano Series was offering local crowds their first-ever chance to hear bunches of world-class pianists (usually six) in a single season.

Graf's own international concert tours, plus his regular "jury duty" at many of the world's top piano competitions, have made him a formidable talent scout. So his series snags many of today's rising young stars, like Chinese sensation Chu-Fang Huang, who visited just last month. We've also enjoyed her Curtis Institute classmate Sean Kennard, who now studies with Graf. He was one of three Americans to qualify last year for the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, the world's ritziest piano contest.

But the IPS' list of established stars is a long one, too. Since I began taking in these concerts around 2000, I've heard piano deities like Earl Wild (twice) and Graf's own teacher, Leon Fleisher. Other living legends include Graf's own teacher, Leon Fleisher, plus Ann Schein and Ilana Vered.

Frequent visitor Andrew Armstrong made his IPS debut at the Sottile on March 27. His ambitious program, exploring a huge range of expression and technique, was a prime example of what can make a piano recital so exciting. After some of the sweetest, most elegant Mozart you could hope for, we got Beethoven's Sonata No. 28, sporting one of the toughest final movements out there. After a strong start, Armstrong lost his place and had to repeat part of a fearsome fugue. But he covered it so well that only a few of us even noticed.

And all was forgotten after halftime, with his deep vision of Liszt's sad but spectacular Valée d'Obermann and some exhilarating tone-painting in three Debussy preludes. Finally, he attacked Prokofiev's thorny fourth sonata, bringing the house down.

Local piano fans have responded by showing up in droves to support the IPS, often beating piano audiences Graf has seen in much bigger towns. As well they should: as far as pure piano glory is concerned, a keyboard groupie would have to live somewhere like New York or Chicago to hear more (or better) than we get right here in our own back yard.


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