Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra and pianist Conrad Tao
Lensic Performing Arts Center, April 22 and 23
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