In the four years of the Clayton Piano Festival, founder and director Jonathan Levin can’t recall anyone ever playing in a tuxedo with tails, the imagined garb of the classical pianist. But last year Levin did play Bach dressed as a taco on the day before Halloween.
“It’s kind of a symbol of the uniqueness of this festival,” Levin said.
This Friday, the fifth annual Clayton Piano Festival will kick off a series of six performances over eight days. Though the festival bears the town’s name and most of the concerts will be in Clayton, this year’s festival also spreads to the Cary Arts Center and Benson’s Preston Woodall House.
Levin lives in New York for most of the year, but grew up in Clayton and remembers playing his first piano recital in a pre-renovated Clayton Center at 9 years old.
“Back then it was just kind of dilapidated, and no one could go up to the balcony because they were afraid it would collapse,” Levin said. “When I got back from college, they had finished the Clayton Center and made it this beautiful venue, but there was no classical music. I was at a point where I wanted to start something and saw the potential there for something unique and interesting. I wanted to share what I love to do with audiences who may not know anything about it.”
The Clayton Piano Festival, Levin said, aims to attract audiences who don’t usually attend piano concerts and, he hopes, offer them a pleasant surprise.
“The people who come are not necessarily classical concertgoers,” Levin said. “We try to provide a format that’s easily accessible for everyone. Usually when I talk about classical music with people, and in North Carolina in particular, they may think it doesn’t seem like something they would be interested in, or doesn’t deal with their experience.
“But people come to our concerts, have a nice meal at an elegant location like the Wagner House or Brick and Mortar, see their friends and have a fun night out. Then they stay for the music and love it. This music is just as relevant today as it was 100 or 200 years ago. Everything we have today came from the Western classical tradition: harmony, rhythm, form, all those things, they’re not new.”
This year’s festival will open in Cary with Rachel Flowers, a pianist who is blind and plays many of her own compositions, as well as jazz and rock covers. Levin will perform songs from the Great American Songbook, Angelo Rondello will perform a greatest hits of recognizable classical piano, Bill McNally will offer a concert of ragtime standards and Azamat Sydykov will perform a concert of Russian composers. The festival will wrap up Saturday, Oct. 22, with a concert of five pianists on the stage of the Clayton Center, concluding with all five performing the same Beethoven piece on five pianos at the same time.
“Every new season and round of concerts is kind of an experiment,” Levin said.
Though most audiences might not actively seek out classical concerts, pretty much everyone can hum a few notes of an old grand symphony or recall the title of at least one piece of music. Levin said this music is still living and breathing today.
“People encounter and listen to classical music all the time without even knowing it,” Levin said, referencing dramatic film and television scores and even cellphone ring tones. “The people who composed this music, they were real people too.”
Concert tickets range from $15 to $20, with some venues offering dinner for an additional charge. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to claytonpianofestival.org.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson