American Rage

Conrad Tao

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American Rage Review

by James Manheim

This release by pianist Conrad Tao, a prodigy who has made a specialty of virtuoso repertory, here turns, as have virtuosos before him, to political material. Of course, that doesn't foreclose virtuosity: the two works by Frederic Rzewski are famously difficult pieces. Both refer to the labor strife of the 1930s, building large architectural structures atop songs of the era, "Which Side Are You On?" and "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues." With the increasingly politicized nature of American culture, Rzewski has been experiencing something of a revival. Whatever your persuasion, you may agree that it's surprising that few major artists have done a release like this one up to now, and that Tao's high-octane performances satisfyingly fill the bill. The most intriguing performance here is that of Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata, composed between 1939 and 1941. Tao calls it an "elegy" for the era of labor activism, noting that the unrest in Kentucky's Harlan County ended in 1939. The reading may seem far-fetched, but it's one of those that might work even if you don't take it at face value. The sonata stands apart from other works of Copland's populist period, which was well underway by this time. Sample the middle movement where Tao deemphasizes the jazz element that other pianists, notably Leonard Bernstein, have brought to the music. The elegiac mood, if there is one, continues with Julia Wolfe's Compassion, a work written in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is a powerful album that demands attention whether or not you accept all of its premises, and it marks a fascinating new stage in the career of one of the most exciting young American pianists, just 25 when the album appeared in 2019.

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