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Composer and pianist Conrad Tao’s poetic approaches to history and social justice

Pianist Conrad Tao sitting at a piano with a window on his left.
Conrad Tao performs "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" June 24, 2022 at Brevard Music Center's 2022 season opener.

The Brevard Music Center welcomes back music lovers for its 2022 summer season with a season opener that includes pianist, composer and emerging classical music leader Conrad Tao. New York Magazine described Tao as “the kind of musician who is shaping the future of classical music.”

Tao’s started playing piano when he was 3 years old and began performing as a concert recitalist at age of 8. Among his many accolades, he is a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, a Davidson Fellow Laureate and a Gilmore Foundation Young Artist. His trio – The Junction Trio – released a live album performing Trapani, Ives, and Dvorak, where they donated all the proceeds to racial justice organizations in New York City. His 2019 release “American Rage" features works by Frederic Rzewski, Julia Wolfe, and Aaron Copland, and “explores the roots of rebellion from the 1930s Harlan County labor disputes, through the trauma of 9/11, to the deep divisions of the present day.”

BPR’s Anastasia Marie spoke with Tao earlier this week ahead of his performance of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at Friday’s opening performance at Brevard Music Center. BPR is broadcasting the concert live beginning at 7 PM.

What inspired you to connect this traditionally European classical music to social justice?

I think part of it for me grew out of just frustration. I come from a super traditional classical background. I started studying the piano when I was three years old, so it's been a part of my entire life. But as I got older, I was fortunate to have some really amazing teachers who, starting from a pretty young age, opened my ears beyond the world of old classical music. So around the age of 10 or so, I was able to learn that music, that concert music, was still being produced today and was a living, breathing art form and not just a sort of rehashing of old familiar things over and over again, which was maybe the context I had going in before my teacher started playing me records beyond just the classics.

So it was pretty clear to me early on that the education I was receiving was incomplete at best and that there was more out there. And as I got older, I happened to be coming of age in the early YouTube era. I spent a lot of time online and, and it informed my perspective a lot, and it allowed me to listen really widely. And once I did that, I discovered music from all around the world. Music both from centuries ago and millennia old tradition, but also music being made currently all around the world.

It was a similar version of that experience I had when I was about 10. It was this mind expanding, frame expanding experience where I realized, there's so much more out there and this tradition that I was raised in was just one tradition of many. And I think that to me, in our world right now, is kind of a social justice issue, because we're talking about how certain art forms are legitimized over others. And I think for me, a very simple, crucial realization was that if my tradition was one of many, there's only things to gain from that realization. There's only more to celebrate with that realization. For me, it, it was a little bit of a no brainer on that level. And then beyond that, it feels kind of like a baseline responsibility to the world around me. I would like to think that my artistic work, the thing that gives me so much life is, I ought to be engaged with the world around me. You know, it really is that simple.

Conrad Tao performing on piano and looking at sheet music on a darkened stage with blue lighting.

Thanks, Conrad. I appreciate your answer, waking up to other traditions that weren't the ones that you were schooled in. I'm also a European classically trained musician. I'm a violist, and it was a lot of the dead white guys I learned to play. And, it wasn't until after school and while working as a freelance musician that I became exposed to a wide variety of musical traditions from all over the world and right here at home; American musical traditions that have roots in the African America experience, and contemporary classical composers of color. So how do you go about working with musical traditions as a classically trained musician and curating these selections to communicate a message of social justice?

One approach that I've used both in my live work and in my albums, is trying to program newer and older works alongside each other that hopefully, in a fashion, will open up ways of listening to both. My hope is to show that if we listen to the older pieces, the really familiar standard, canonized pieces, if we listen to them as though they're not a default, as though they're not the groundwork that everything is built on; if there's a little bit of destabilization there that actually the music is more interesting and more exciting. So I try to program in that way, sometimes the programs I put together have more explicit political themes. My most recent album called “American Rage” was mostly music by Frederic Rzewski who wrote several pieces, specifically inspired by protest songs.

It was interesting to me on that album to place that music alongside Copeland's music, specifically with the hope of bringing out a side of Copeland beyond just the sort of bucolic Americana that I think Copelands often can get characterized as, with the hope of bringing out the historical facts. Copeland was a gay man, a Jewish man, an openly leftist composer who was questioned by McCarthy. I just wanted to foreground some of that history that I think sometimes gets papered over by just the idea of Copeland as a style. So that's one example of how I'm interested in political themes; it's a mixture of poetic approaches and more specifically historical approaches.

I hope that my programs can be an ear opening experience as a result of these unexpected juxtapositions. And I hope that they imply connections between different music and different instruments and different traditions, in a way that both highlights the beautiful diversity of the work and also hints at something shared beyond just vocabulary.
Conrad Tao

I'm curious, how do you weave in the history in a program, never mind in an album? But in a live performance, how do listeners receive that rich context?

I guess I'm hopeful that it comes through with thoughtful arrangement. One program that I do is with a tap dancer, a percussive dancer named Caleb Teicher. This is a duo program that we do together and they're tap dancing throughout the entire program and I’m playing, and we've weaved together this program that goes through art Tatum to Schoenberg to some pieces of repertoire from the tap dance repertoire, a piece of choreography by Honey Coles and Brenda Bufalino is something that Caleb dances. And the hope is that through this arrangement, really familiar narratives might get complicated. I personally like to have some of these things to be a little more of an undercurrent. And I hope that my programs can be an ear opening experience as a result of these unexpected juxtapositions. And I hope that they imply connections between different music and different instruments and different traditions, in a way that both highlights the beautiful diversity of the work and also hints at something shared beyond just vocabulary.

Tell us about the piece you’re performing at Brevard Music Center, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

A portrait of Conrad Tao sitting with forearms folded, wearing a red, white and blue tee shirt.

It was written after Rachmaninoff had lived in the US for a while and I think really shows the influence of American jazz on his vocabulary. We know that Rachmaninoff was a frequent patron of jazz clubs in New York, where he lived for quite a while. And you can hear this really thrilling, early 20th century American jazz influence on this piece, which I think is super delightful because the Paganini Theme that it's based on is so, so familiar and almost symbolic of capital “CM” classical music -- it's something that you hear in conservatories all the time.

And so it has this iconicity, and there is, I don't know if I would characterize it as him making a joke or anything about the Theme, but there is this fun twist; the fact that he filters it through what I hear as this kind of, almost big band sensibility. It's also a richly chromatic sensibility, which emerges in Rachmaninoff’s music after he moves to the US. I think it all kind of comes to a head in this great combination of all of Rachmaninoff's strengths. We come to this 18th variation in this Rhapsody, which is this soaring romantic melody, which I imagine might be familiar to some listeners just through osmosis. It's a familiar love theme and it really does sound like that. It sounds like it could be like a smokey standard and it comes by just flipping the original Paganini theme upside down.

Anastasia is a Memphis-native who has been living in Western North Carolina since 2011. Before joining BPR, she was a full-time freelance musician and teaching artist. She’s a graduate of the University of Vermont and the UNC School of the Arts, where her background includes ecology and music performance. She continues her private voice teaching practice through Being Vocal Freedom and is currently an Alexander Technique teacher-in-training. Anastasia lives with her husband and two dogs in Candler.