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At a Lane Series concert last May, Director Jane Ambrose made an announcement: The upcoming season would be a "Fred Chiu Year." The audience responded with simultaneous sighs. Chiu is to Vermont devotees of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as Justin Timberlake is to teeny-boppers.

Now in its 26th year, the UVM series offers intimate concerts - about half of them classical chamber ensembles and solo pianists such as Chiu, and the rest a mix of world music, folk and jazz. Regulars return year after year to hear rising stars, internationally touring quartets and, every other year, pianist Frederic Chiu. His October 6 concert marks his seventh here since 1994.

"Besides St. Patrick's Day," Ambrose confirms, "he's our biggest seller."

Chiu, 41, is an Asian-American who grew up in Indiana. He studied artificial intelligence at Indiana University before attending Juilliard. He first achieved national notice when he competed in the 1993 Van Cliburn Competition - and lost.

Featured in a film about the event, he wowed viewers. "He was kind of a maverick," explains Burlington piano instructor Carol Hewitt. "He's hip and the judges aren't," she suggests, noting that he pulls his long hair back in a ponytail and prefers a folding chair to the standard piano stool. The Van Cliburn judges "don't like non-traditionalists," she adds. But Vermonters do. "It kind of gave him the status of the underdog."

Chiu's not just any underdog, however. He plays brilliantly. "One cannot imagine playing more elegant, more refined, more spiritual than Chiu's," gushes Le Monde of Paris.

"He's so confident and so good," adds Ambrose. "He gets so deeply into whatever he plays that we hear things we've never heard before." His expressive articulation brings out the music's structural nuances and emotional underpinnings.

Personality is another part of Chiu's appeal. His charismatic stage presence comes across even before he sits down at the keyboard. Soft-spoken and articulate, he unassumingly shares his personal connections to a selection. These explanations are generous, but never didactic. "A concert is a concert," he insists in a phone interview from his home in Westport, Connecticut. "It's not a lesson. At the Lane Series I'm very conscious that it is a concert. But I try to bring the audience into my thought process."

Those thoughts often place a piece within the arc of a composer's career. More than most performers, Chiu immerses himself in the entire oeuvre of an artist. "If I have a connection with a piece," he explains, "I'd like to know how it fits in the whole chain of events, so I'm naturally drawn to understand the rest of the repertory." His 20-plus CDs include Prokofiev's entire output for solo piano and a comprehensive collection of Liszt's transcriptions of songs by Schubert.

Also unusual among pianists is Chiu's interest in works originally composed for other instruments. He writes his own transcriptions, sometimes to better experience the music for himself. Case in point: his setting of Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite," which he played as one of three encores the last time he was in town. He's bringing it back this year.

Chiu's associations with the piece are personal. He remembered a particular recording of it his father played when he was little. "I tried to track it down but couldn't find the right one," he explains. Chiu's piano version is so true that a radio announcer who heard it was able to identify the original recording: Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s. "The colorations were exactly what were in my ear," Chiu marvels.

Piano transcriptions also help the audience hear familiar works as new. Chiu will play Busoni's piano settings of Bach chorales and - in a last-minute addition to the program - his own recent transcription of the aria "Erbarme Dich" from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The evening's centerpiece is Liszt's piano transcription of Beethoven's Fifth. Chiu describes it as "almost a photographic reproduction of the symphonic score."

"It's a huge challenge, maybe one of the most difficult works ever written for piano," he says. "You're one player doing the work of 50." Although Chiu's performances are typically confident, on this one, the audience will see and hear the effort - which is as it should be, Chiu notes. "The piece is all about challenge and overcoming struggle." His striving "will be part of the act," he suggests.

Audience members who like the effect will be glad to know there's more where that came from. The Beethoven is the first in a series of symphonic piano programs Chiu hopes to present in coming years, including at UVM.

But keyboard connoisseurs don't have to wait for the next "Fred Year" to hear more great piano. In November, the Lane Series hosts Yevgeny Sudbin, hailed by the London Telegraph as "the best pianist of his generation," according to Ambrose. In March, Burlington welcomes Jonathan Biss, who had planned to play UVM a few years back but rescheduled when an invitation turned up to solo with the Chicago Symphony. The piano season closes with newcomer Maria Mazo - who took two prizes for interpretation at last year's Van Cliburn. Sounds promising.

Other solo pianists this season:

Dmitry Rachmanov (Scarletti to Prokofiev), Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, October 8, 3 p.m.

Paul Lewis (Beethoven sonatas, series), Middlebury College, October 13, January 26, March 9 & May 11, 8 p.m.

Krystian Zimerman (program TBA), Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, October 24, 7 p.m. and Middlebury College, October 25, 7:30 p.m.

Yevgeny Sudbin, (Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy), UVM Lane Series, November 8, 7:30 p.m.

Michael Arnowitt (Goldberg Variations), Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, January 12, 8 p.m.

Jonathan Biss, (Beethoven, Webern, Mozart, Perle), UVM Lane Series, March 16, 7:30 p.m.

Ingrid Fliter (Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin), Middlebury College, March 18, 3 p.m.

Davide Cabassi (Chopin, DeFalla, Ravel, Bartok), Chandler Center, Randolph, April 1, 7 p.m.

Lise de la Salle (Mozart, Prokofiev), Middlebury College, May 2, 7:30 p.m.

Maria Mazo, (Beethoven, Mendelssohn), UVM Lane Series, May 11, 7:30 p.m. $25.

Sally Pinkas (Fauré, Schumann, Christian Wolff), Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, May 29, 7 p.m.


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