Every year, conservatories around the world turn out scores of hotshot pianists. There’s been a lot of cynical ink spilt over the “sovietization” of how piano performance at that level is all too frequently taught. It’s a career, after all, with endless mutability and speed-reading at the top of the list of desirable assets, right? One of the many problems with that model is that rugged individualists like Lionel Yu, Karine Poghosyan and Melody Fader – all favorites of this blog – don’t fit a cookie-cutter model. Perish the thought that a player with monster technique might actually prefer tunefulness to flash or trendiness.
One of Conrad Tao‘s distinguishing characteristics on his latest album American Rage– streaming at Spotify – is that he goes much more deeply than so many of his contemporaries into the many styles he’s called on to play. The record is all 20th and 21st century compositions, which shouldn’t be a bold move at this point in history – but let’s get real, it is. But lest anyone typecast him as an indie classical guy, he seems to be equally at home in the Romantic repertoire.
Tao gets off to a flying start on the album with the first of two daunting Frederic Rzewski compositions, Which Side Are You On. What’s most striking is how Tao lets the allusive bluesiness in the melody linger, taking his time, parsing the score for plaintiveness and rusticity before the hammering fireworks kick in. When that happens, Tao is there with a stilletto incisiveness, but even then, he backs away as soon as he can for a remarkable resonance, letting those bell-like righthand loops ring out, signaling a changing of the guard – or so it would seem. What an appropriate – and hopeful – piece of music to be immersed in for the first week of the 2019 public Presidential impeachment hearings.
The second of the Rzewski pieces. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues closes the album. The low, low lefthand quasi boogie-woogie is mutedly chilling, vividly evocative of the mechanics of Jim Crow-style exploitation. And although Tao raises the ante a little, he doesn’t relent, looping the lefthand with almost imperceptibly crescendoing intensity as the righthand melody grows more accusatory. The icepick swell to the false ending just a little more than midway through is hair-raising; the sepulchral dynamics at the end are perfectly counterintuitive.
Julia Wolfe‘s Compassion, written in the wake of 9/11, makes a great segue into that work. Again, Tao works the hypnotic and crushing contrasts masterfully, a twistedly chiming funhouse mirror tour of a stalactite cave.
Including Aaron Copland in an album of music inspired by freedom fighters is a stretch, considering his penchant for conveniently folksy music for backwater orchestras…and orchestras in search of a backwater sensibility (for the record, Copland was from New York). But the anxious close harmonies, proto-minimalism and quasi-Mompou belltones of Copland’s Piano Sonata fit in well here. While it doesn’t rise to the invensity of the other two works, Tao’s thoughtfully considered pacing – especially in the rather still final movement – is noteworthy. Tao is playing the album release show at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on Nov 20 at 7:30 PM, with a wildly eclectic program of works by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Wolfe, David Lang and Jason Eckart; tickets are $25