Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Orches­tra and pi­anist Con­rad Tao

Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, April 22 and 23

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Con­rad Tao has ap­peared here reg­u­larly since Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica in­tro­duced him eight sea­sons ago as a fif­teen-year-old prodigy. It has been a plea­sure to hear him de­velop into a mu­si­cian with a dis­tinct pro­file, one who pos­sesses in­trepid artis­tic cu­rios­ity and a tech­nique for­mi­da­ble enough to but­tress his flair for dra­matic reper­toire. Th­ese came to­gether im­pres­sively in two of Fred­eric Rzewski’s

North Amer­i­can Bal­lads, monuments of the mod­ern pi­ano reper­toire. Com­posed in 1978, th­ese are ex­tended med­i­ta­tions on po­lit­i­cally charged folk bal­lads; “Which Side Are You On” in­volves strik­ing min­ers in Ken­tucky coal coun­try, while “Winns­boro Cot­ton Mill Blues,” the most fa­mous piece of the set, in­volves se­vere work­ing con­di­tions in a North Carolina tex­tile fac­tory. Tao pref­aced Rzewski’s piece by play­ing pe­riod record­ings of the fun­da­men­tal songs. I had not heard this done be­fore in con­cert, but it was an ef­fec­tive and use­ful way to in­tro­duce the melodies and philo­soph­i­cal stance Rzewski’s pieces de­velop. Since the com­poser is known to al­low per­form­ers a rel­a­tively long leash in mat­ters of in­ter­pre­ta­tion, I imag­ine he would ap­plaud such a pre­sen­ta­tion, which is eas­ily achieved through mod­ern play­back tech­nol­ogy. Tao took no pris­on­ers. He was fe­ro­cious in the wild-man mu­sic of “Which Side,” daz­zling in the throb­bing pul­sa­tions of “Winns­boro,” where he mar­shaled the thrust of his en­tire body to sum­mon up the din of the fac­tory, the ef­fect prov­ing as up­lift­ing as it was ex­haust­ing. And yet, th­ese were not just “slam-bang” per­for­mances. Par­tic­u­larly in “Winns­boro,” some of the re­peated left-hand fig­u­ra­tion was tapped out with metic­u­lously voiced precision.

It was wise to sep­a­rate the two Rzewski works; ei­ther could dec­i­mate a lis­tener, and both to­gether might prove de trop for del­i­cate sen­si­bil­i­ties. Be­tween them he in­serted Copland’s Pi­ano Sonata. An emo­tion­ally am­bigu­ous work from 1941, it has been cham­pi­oned by a num­ber of lead­ing pi­anists over the years with­out gain­ing great pop­u­lar fa­vor, notwith­stand­ing some snazzy Bern­stein-es­que rhythms in its sec­ond move­ment. That ex­panse in­cludes an al­lu­sion to Gersh­win’s “I Got Rhythm,” as does “Which Side Are You On” — a clever strate­gic touch in Tao’s recital construction. David Lang’s cage is a trib­ute com­posed in 1992, a year af­ter John Cage’s pass­ing. This fiveminute piece was in­ter­est­ing as an étude in which quick, quiet rep­e­ti­tions of notes are made to sound like sus­tained tones en­er­gized by pul­sa­tions — or at least that’s what Tao did with it, which is an im­pres­sive tech­ni­cal feat.

Less suc­cess­ful was his hard-edged per­for­mance of Schumann’s Car­naval, which was rough from the out­set and, even its pre­sum­ably lyri­cal sec­tions, did not con­vey the fan­tasy that in­hab­its its pages. This will prob­a­bly prove to be an in­terim state of an in­ter­pre­ta­tion-in-progress. Nei­ther did Tao’s per­for­mance of Beethoven’s Pi­ano Con­certo No. 5 the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon, with Thomas O’Con­nor con­duct­ing the Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Orches­tra, come across as a fully formed con­cep­tion. Ath­leti­cism trumped no­bil­ity, and the re­lent­less energy and bril­liance proved fa­tigu­ing. Even in the slow sec­ond move­ment, a balm for the ear af­ter the pow­er­ful open­ing move­ment, ten­der­ness came more from the orches­tra than from the soloist. At the end, Tao re­turned to where he cur­rently seems most com­fort­able, in a solo en­core: Caté­naires, a 2006 work by El­liott Carter, a high-ve­loc­ity four-minute move­ment in which an un­ac­com­pa­nied, wide-rang­ing melodic line is dense with notes but clear of tex­ture, here played to stun­ning ef­fect.

In the orches­tra’s pro­gram, the Beethoven con­certo was pre­ceded by Entr’acte by Caro­line Shaw, win­ner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Mu­sic. The pro­gram of­fered her de­scrip­tion of the piece as “struc­tured like a min­uet and trio,” but it ad­heres to such a slow tempo that the kin­ship would not likely oc­cur to a lis­tener. The static har­monic rep­e­ti­tions at its open­ing sug­gest a pas­sacaglia in­stead, and the pulse sounded more like 6/8 than the 3/4 one would ex­pect of a min­uet. Any­way, it was full of en­gag­ing pas­sages, in­clud­ing a trio cast as a pizzi­cato cho­rale in Re­nais­sance har­monies, and it ended with a wist­ful epi­logue for solo cello, played beau­ti­fully by James Hol­land.

The orches­tra’s finest mu­sic-mak­ing of the af­ter­noon, how­ever, was in the con­cert’s open­ing item: Mozart’s Sym­phony No. 40 in G mi­nor. O’Con­nor’s read­ing was dra­matic and in­ci­sive in the fast move­ments, with care­fully sculpted ideas en­hanced by some unusual but ef­fec­tive phras­ings and slightly elon­gated pauses. The An­dante flowed smoothly, with the wind com­po­nent form­ing a well-bal­anced choir. (O’Con­nor used Mozart’s re­vised orches­tra­tion of this piece, which adds clar­inets to the wind sec­tion.) The min­uet was very fast in­deed — de­monic, even — like a race­horse be­ing driven faster than it thinks it can go. On the whole, it was the best or­ches­tral per­for­mance this town has heard in a good while.— James M. Keller

Con­rad Tao

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