Van Cliburn, Leon Fleisher, Alicia de Larrocha, Vladimir Feltsman - these are just some of the pianists whose talents were on display at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, which ended here last weekend. And, of course, David Owen Norris.

Who?David Owen Norris, the 37-year-old English pianist tapped as the first-ever Gilmore Artist in a unique selection process that carries with it an estimated $250,000 in stipends and services for the winner. All in the name of the late Irving S. Gilmore, whose bequest of more than $100 million made both the award and the festival possible.


Irving S. Gilmore, the Kalamazoo businessman and philanthropist whose love of the piano led him to aid a number of other promising young artists and bring some of the biggest names in the business to his hometown for concert appearances. And, if festival organizers have their way, neither name will remain obscure for long.

Norris' award, for example, brings him not only professional management and promotional services but also some 60 performing engagements that, over the next two years, will take him from Chicago to Budapest. Heretofore outside his native England he had perhaps been best known for his unconventional showing in the 1981 Sydney International Piano Competition, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown.

The Gilmore, by contrast, was looking for an unconventional artist, to match the "non-competitive" nature of its competition. Reportedly the jury's unanimous choice, Norris was selected following an international screening process that saw the original 50 nominees whittled first to 35, then to seven, all of whom were heard live at various locations around the world. Without their knowledge, moreover.

Indeed, the first Norris learned of the award was when the news was sprung on him earlier this year in his New York hotel room.

By the same token, it was certainly an unconventional repertoire he brought with him to Kalamazoo. The Britten Piano Concerto, the Elgar Piano Quintet, music of Byrd and Bax (the Sonata No. 2) and Liszt's keyboard-only realization of Schubert's "Winterreise" (consisting of 12 of the original 24 songs) - this is a far cry from the usual regimen of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, non-transcriptive Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky one encounters both on and off the competition circuit these days.

And how did he do?

Well, once the spotlit preliminaries were out of the way (complete with a sound-bite video of the artist) at the April 27 opening gala in Western Michigan University's Miller Auditorium, Norris managed to coax a more rounded tone from the piano in the Britten than did Fleisher in the evening's one commissioned work, the ringingly dissonant Concerto for the Left Hand by Kalamazoo's own C. Curtis-Smith. Nor did he neglect the more songful aspects of the Elgar, which, with the aid of the Blair String Quartet, came in for a lyrically impassioned reading.

At the same time his basic sound is somewhat angular, something particularly apparent in the "Winterreise," which for all its drama lacked the subtle shadings and telling illumination of subsidiary voices others have found in these transcriptions. Yet the suite itself - here receiving its American premiere, albeit in slightly reordered form - seems to me a major addition to the repertoire, even if for most listeners I suspect Schubert-Liszt will never replace Schubert.

Nor, to my ears, is the Curtis-Smith concerto likely to edge out the left-hand concertos of Prokofiev and Ravel. Nonetheless its tolling complexities (in some instances based on actual bell-ringing patterns) were forcefully set forth by Fleisher and the Kalamazoo Symphony under Yoshimi Takeda. (According to artistic director David Pocock, the festival plans a similar left-hand commission from Ned Rorem, this time for Gary Graffman in '93.)

But it wasn't just a Norris-and-Fleisher festival, offering as well de Larrocha's near-definitive Granados (Book I and "El Pelele" from the "Goyescas") along with her polished but somewhat depersonalized Mozart (the K. 282 and K. 576 Sonatas) and, in East Lansing, Feltsman's wonderfully fluent Rachmaninoff, here the Concerto No. 3.

Add to that daytime recitals from the likes of Abraham Stokman, Hans Graf and Walter Hautzig, as well as evening performances by Anthony di Bonaventura and the four Gilmore Young Artists (of whom the standouts seemed to me Peter Miyamoto and Christopher Taylor), each of whom also qualifies for a generous cash award.

Nor was it exclusively a piano festival, with a schedule that embraced a stimulating multi-afternoon survey of the Mozart sonatas by fortepianist Malcolm Bilson and a typically entertaining harpsichord bash with Igor Kipnis, with Finnish pianist Matti Raekallio's weirdly percussive traversal of the Beethoven sonatas falling somewhere in between. If one looked hard enough, there was even the occasional organ recital.

Likewise a number of jazz concerts, featuring among others George Shearing, Marian McPartland, Chick Corea and Steve Allen. The Billy Taylor-Ramsey Lewis program, across the way in Grand Rapids, was even telecast live.

In short this was anything but a parochial event, even making room for a Music Critics Association Institute that took up much of yours truly's time. But wherever one went everything seemed well attended, by audiences eager not only to lap up more traditional fare but to experience something new.

And Van Cliburn? I have deliberately saved him for last, as did the festival, because apart from Raekallio's bizarre brand of Beethoven, his was perhaps the most problematic of all the programs. And not just because he showed up nearly an hour late.

Admittedly that isn't much for those of us who had already waited 14 years to hear him again. And, I am pleased to report, despite a few technical slips (and one of memory) he can still play a recital - i.e., the chops are there.

What weren't always there were the inner poetry and spontaneity that distinguished his work several decades ago, as in everything from Beethoven (the "Appassionata") to Liszt ("Un Sospiro" and the 12th Hungarian Rhapsody) he went for the obvious, playing to the gallery just as surely as he had in his sentimentally longwinded speechifying.

Even so, occasionally the poetic impulse shone through, perhaps most of all in his Chopin. Witness the gorgeous right-hand arpeggios in his C sharp minor Scherzo and his deliberately introspective treatment of the contrasting sections of the "Funeral March" in the B flat minor Sonata. Against that, however, must be measured his rhythmic and emotional slackness through much of the "Appassionata," otherwise nobly voiced, and his lack of real involvement in the Debussy and Liszt selections.

One doubts that would ever be true of Norris, who, however arcane and British-biased his repertoire, plays only those compositions he says he "can relate to in some way." How that will travel with audiences who not only know what they like but like what they know - i.e., Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, etc. - remains to be seen. Nor, one suspects, is it going to be possible to separate the fate of the Gilmore, at present scheduled every two years, from that of the Gilmore Artist.

Toward the end of his solo recital, however, Norris proved that he, too, can connect with an audience, by way of encores that included not only Peter Maxwell-Davies' "Farewell to Stromness" (a Chieftains favorite) but a cleverly interpolated "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." Which probably earned him a few more pals in Kalamazoo as well.