The venue may have been casual, but the music was anything but.
Pianist Conrad Tao performed at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge on Fort Worth’s Near Southside on Thursday as the latest offering in the Cliburn Sessions series, a schedule of concerts presented by the folks who do the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition every four years.
The series often presents artists who blend classical and pop styles, including some who work in duos and small ensembles. But Thursday’s concert fell back to the Cliburn’s bread and butter — an outstanding solo pianist performing contemporary and time-honored, classical works. And the performance also included the added bonus of a world premiere piece.
The concert opened with Compassion by Julia Wolfe, which Tao noted was composed in 2001 in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy. But the eight-minute work was not elegiac. It was built on a Glass-ian loop of themes that were jolted with shots of dark dissonance in the right hand. And it grew more angry and complicated as it progressed, mirroring a common response to the fall of the World Trade Center towers.
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Next up was Which Side Are You On?, a work by American composer Frederic Rzewski based on a 1930s labor protest song of that same title. Tao explained that the composer took that tune and “exploded it” in the composition. But the work also invited performers to add their own improvisations on the song as a second half of the piece.
Rzewski’s part of the work was noisy and random, never staying in one place too long and never giving any hint of its source (Tao played a recording of a portion of the song to set up the piece). But Tao’s response to the tune was highly accessible and engaging. It reworked and revealed the song without directly quoting it. And the crowd that filled the cozy venue did not hide its approval (one of the fun things about these Live Oak performances is that the audiences hoot and holler when they like something).
The centerpiece of the program was a set of works by three composers that opened with the evening’s world premiere, This Central Valley Heat Will Kill Us All, by Australian composer Dan Thorpe. The edgy piece employed an electronic sound bed built from snippets of phone memos over which Tao dropped notes that were often bellicose and agitated. That piece bled into Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos by Missy Mazzoli, which also used electronic support. But the work was much more somber than the Thorpe, and made its case with impassioned repetition.
Amazingly, those two modern works provided an excellent path to the closing section of the triptych, Franz Liszt’s transcription of a song by Franz Schubert, Du bist die Ruh. Instead of delivering Liszt’s usual keyboard bombast, the piece was sweet, gentle and lullabylike. It made a revealing finish to a clever union of works that showcased Tao’s ability to handle the past as well as he does the present.
After a brief intermission, the 22-year-old Illinois native closed his concert with a gorgeous rendering of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31. The opening moderato cantabile molto espressivo (“slightly singing and very expressive”) was exactly that, with Tao playing with great delicacy in one passage and with extreme playfulness in the next. A proud and strident middle movement segued into a closing section that began dreamily, then stormed into a dazzling finish that really allowed Tao to show off.
On the whole, the performance was absolutely Bass Hall-ready. And it could be argued that the 90-minute concert would have been even better in a more traditional venue. Noise from the bar and restaurant area of the Live Oak leaked into the performance room and marred some of Tao’s quieter moments.
But those minor sound problems were offset by the pluses of the intimacy and the comfortable informality of the venue. The performance made this series of concerts, which is obviously designed to attract younger listeners to classical music performances, look and sound like a great idea.