Composers: Rzewski, Copland, Wolfe
Compositions: Piano music
Performers: Conrad Tao p
Catalogue Number: Warner Classics 9029535477

Conrad Tao’s American Rage has its sights set firmly on political matters. Tao’s program includes music by Frederic Rzewski, Julia Wolfe, and Aaron Copland. It explores themes of rebellion, trauma, and division. He has been presenting these works in concert for several years to much acclaim.

Drawing from Rzewski’s North American Ballads, Tao opens the disc with Which Side Are You On?, based on Florence Reece’s 1931 protest song. He closes with Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, another industrial folk song. In Rzewski’s work, Tao says he sees, “an underlying, unrelenting rhythm of spirit, an expression of humans’ capacity and struggle to come together.”

These bookend works by Copland and contemporary composer Wolfe. In Copland’s elegiac Piano Sonata, Tao hears “a mournful elegy for all that has been lost, an elegy that also opens up towards the future.” This is one of Copland’s most introspective works, but it contains much angular energy; Tao’s interpretation is lively. Wolfe’s Compassion was a response to the September 11 attacks; her work is ambitious and epic in scope – with a keen eye for history – but this is a stark, concise, and at times unrelenting piece. Tao says, “sometimes the only way to express compassion in its overwhelming fullness is to scream.”

Convincing in both concept and execution, American Rage highlights new possibilities for classical music’s relevance.