The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday February 8th

Professor Blends Intimacy, Power in Performance

Thomas Otten
Hill Hall Auditorium

Music department officials here at UNC had an idea they were lucky.

This fall, they signed on pianist Thomas Otten as a professor of piano, and Sunday, he gave his premiere performance in Hill Hall Auditorium. The event proved to be nothing short of spectacular.

The performance was important in many ways. Not only was it Otten's first performance as a professor here in Chapel Hill, but it also was the first performance on one of two brand new Steinway and Sons concert grand pianos donated to the school by UNC alumnus Ben Jones.

The concert, which was part of the William S. Newman Artist Series, took place at 3 p.m. Sunday. The program was one not typical of Otten. Rather than playing several short works by a wide variety of composers, he instead chose to perform many pieces written by only two composers.

The first half of the program was devoted entirely to the preludes of Claude Debussy. These varied and impressionist works provided Otten with an opportunity to showcase his intimate side, and intimacy is something he does well.

The beauty of Debussy's works stems from their complexity and their disregard for traditional musical ideas. To perform these works requires the artist to first become emotionally attached. Only then can the music have its desired effect.

The preludes have titles such as "The Wind in the Plain" and "Steps in the Snow" and are intended to be a musical representation of what the title suggests. And on Sunday, Otten took the audience on a musical journey through the ancient city of Delphi to an engulfed cathedral that rises every 100 years as an example to the rest of humanity.

Otten's attention to detail and the expression given to each individual note made such settings come brilliantly alive. Simply put, a member of the audience needed only to look at the title of the piece being performed and then sit back and close his eyes, letting the music do the rest.

When Otten returned to the stage after intermission, he came sporting a new shirt, having soaked through his previous attire. The piece to be performed for the second half, however, was to soak his shirt yet again -- only this time for a completely different reason.

If the first half was about intimacy, the second half was all about power.

Otten performed Sergei Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor, Op. 36. This is a work not often performed, as it is physically demanding. As with the Debussy, Otten proved once again that he indeed has what it takes.

And this time he pulled the crowd along with him. As the last note of the piece rang out, both artist and audience leapt up triumphantly, and Otten returned three times to the stage to take bows.

Unlike many of the superior acts that come through Chapel Hill, this time the public has the thrill of knowing that this one isn't going anywhere, at least for awhile. Thomas Otten has only been here for two months, but for those in the audience Sunday, his presence has already been felt in a major way.

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