The university printed a brochure to help Thomas Otten recruit piano students. On the cover, a handsome young guy in a tux — Otten the icon — leans over the exposed viscera of a grand piano. In front of him are two enormous and seemingly disembodied hands, one weighing the other down as if to keep it from rising spontaneously. You sense this may have been the last time anyone ever saw those hands still.

On a blustery afternoon in February, two men are arguing onstage in the cavernous interior of Hill Hall auditorium. A violist and cellist wait patiently nearby as violinist Richard Luby and a rangy pianist thrash out a section. Gesticulating, they intersperse spoken words with short musical phrases as though unable to complete a whole sentence without using both. The pianist’s face looks familiar, all right, but he’s added gold-rimmed spectacles and substituted jeans and a comfortably oversized purple sweater for the monkey suit. This is the other Thomas Otten — “Call me Tommy!” — and these are his colleagues on the applied music faculty.

One plays, two play, they all play a lick. Murmurs, consternation. Suddenly everyone looks at each other and launches into the first movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet no. 1, op. 15, in C Minor. The strings are lushly enamored, the piano petulant, mercurial. The pianist’s hands rise and fall as elegantly as a mannerist curve. He now leans to watch the others, now shoves his face close to the score, now nods vehemently. Light pours through the enormous single-paned windows that dominate one wall of the decaying auditorium, glinting off his glasses.

Suddenly he blurts out — “Right there!” They stop. Tommy races up an arpeggio, looks around quizzically. Violist Hugh Partridge rests his chin on his hand. Cellist Brent Wissick bolts from his chair, then reseats himself. Violinist Luby suddenly sticks his legs out straight and plants them violently on the floor. Partridge straightens his back, lifts his bow. Some kind of negotiation has occurred.

They start over. Tommy bites his lip, dips his head, whips across a page turn. He balances on the front four inches of his bench, his sneakers pumping the pedals easily.

Eight months into this Chapel Hill gig, and you can tell he is already a full partner. “The piano area is a backbone of the music department,” says Susan Klebanow, associate chair for applied studies. “There’s a lot riding on the piano division and on Tommy.”

And it’s a good gig: associate professor, a tenure-track job. Coming here from Kent State, where he chaired the piano division, he beat out 110 candidates. Klebanow, a member of the search committee, recalls that they were drawn most of all to Otten’s CD. She says, “His playing was gorgeous, expressive, vivid, mature, exciting.”

In his first semester, he gave a debut recital as part of the William S. Newman Artists Series, featuring Debussy and Rachmaninoff. People are still talking about it. “He energized the entire music community,” Luby says. “In Tommy, we were looking for a world-class performer, and we found one.”

Luby and Otten did a series of six recitals in the fall, three in North Carolina and three outside the state, including one in Interlochen, Michigan — prime turf for recruiting career-minded high school music students, who flock there for intensive training.

What is he like to play with?” Luby repeats. He pauses reflectively. “Like a high-maintenance sports car.”

Otten laughs. “Back at Kent State, I lived in a condo for a year, and the neighborhood was ready to kill me. We had a midnight curfew, and it just wasn’t going to happen. I like to practice till two or three.” At home he plays on a Steinway B — six feet, ten inches of unadulterated power just this side of a Lamborghini. This time he wised up and bought a house. “My house here is way too big for me,” he says, “but the piano fits.”

The music department itself has two brand-new nine-foot Steinway D grand pianos on stage — a little that side of a Lamborghini. Otten helped pick them out, and they were part of the deal that brought him here. “The department was in dire need of new instruments,” Otten confides. “The ones they had had been through the wars.”

So department chair Jim Ketch called in an old promise of a donation from alumnus Ben Jones of Hendersonville, N.C. Arrangements were made to fly Otten from Ohio to New York, where he would meet up with Ketch and others — including Chancellor James Moeser and his wife Susan Moeser, both keyboard artists in their own right — to try out seven pianos at Steinway and Sons.

The new instruments make a huge difference in my morale — and the students’,” Otten says.

Besides his Chapel Hill recital and his road trips with Luby, he took on solo recitals at Meredith College, William and Mary, and UNC-Greensboro. He held a high school “piano day” for teachers and students from around the state, and did another presentation in Charlotte. “Private teachers are the lifeblood of the university,” he says. “It’s so important to connect with them.” Busy guy.

When it’s not all about the music, it’s all about the music students. Carolina has some twenty piano majors and another fifty piano students in any given year, so a key part of the interview process for Otten’s job was watching candidates coach chamber music ensembles, teach one-on-one, and do a master class.

The rumors started coming in fast and furious after the master class,” Ketch says. “Whoo! He was really after them! Let me rephrase that: he quickly established the levels of excellence he would pursue if we hired him.”

One of his seven freshman pupils — Kings Mountain, North Carolina, native Jennifer Smith — drove up to Kent State to visit his studio during her senior year of high school, taking a lesson and watching him coach a particularly exacting session with a student preparing for a recital. “They worked till one a.m.,” Smith reports. “I was amazed. This was the only teacher I had seen who challenged students in the way I knew I needed to be challenged.”

She is pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree, which requires eight semesters of lessons. “Most of my students are on the fast track,” Otten says. Three, including Smith, were invited to compete this spring in a LaGrange, Georgia, competition for $1,500 and a chance to perform a concerto.

For her two credit hours of lessons, Smith practices four hours a day during the week, more on weekends. Her other classes — four terms each of music theory and history, eight of ensemble playing, and fifty-eight credit hours outside the department — are “just stuff I have to get out of the way.”

What we do at the keyboard,” Otten says, “is incredibly complex. If you don’t have the tools — a vocabulary, a set of intellectual and physical skills, and above all listening skills — you can have all the talent in the world, but …” His hands flutter.

He talks to his students about sound — good sound, bad sound, harsh sound, projection; about line, tone color, tension, relaxation, rotation; about how performance practices differ from era to era. How would Chopin pedal Haydn, anyway? Although he teaches every important composer, he doesn’t choose to perform them all: “I haven’t performed Bach in many years, and probably won’t. I’m a bit more over the top. And the balance required for Mozart is not part of my makeup, either. I like things that are more extreme — the French repertoire, the classicists — especially Haydn and Beethoven — the Romantics. And I love contemporary stuff: big, rhythmic, driving things, anything with lots of color. I have a lyrical bent to my playing, but it’s always full of direction and momentum.”

Actually,” says Susan Klebanow, “Tommy is over the top in pretty much every direction.”

Back in Hill Hall, Luby bounces on his chair, slouches and straightens, then suddenly bends sideways to play while staring right at Otten. Otten turns to him, concentrated and expectant, smiles and turns back to his keyboard. He looks happy when he plays, often folding his lower lip under his teeth, his upper body in constant motion independent of his hands. He caresses and cajoles the keys. One wrist rises gracefully, then suddenly the instrument thunders under his touch, and his fingers are no more than a blur.

By now it is clear that the four players are savoring one another’s sound, listening for the inner voices.

Now they launch into the scherzo, quickening as the strings fall into a rhythmic pizzicato plucking, a backdrop for the piano’s gaily arpeggiated melody. When they stop, someone cracks a joke about Fauré’s love life — the Parisian composer lost his fiancée during the years when he was writing this quartet, and later acquired a reputation as a philanderer — and there is some silliness about Gallic garlic. The changing timbre of the music has piqued the performers’ mood, and their conversation gradually shifts into French. These guys are having fun. They tease apart and reassemble the fibers of the music en français, then: “Prochaine?” “Prochaine.” Forward, forward.

At the end, Tommy throws his arms back to stretch exultantly and says — in English — “Oh, that time was very nice!” He pauses and looks around. “From the top?”

Paul Baerman was a freelance contributor to Endeavors.