August 18, 2015

Conrad Tao to release new album: Mussorgsky reframed for the 21st century

The 21-year-old composer-pianist pits Pictures at an Exhibition against cutting-edge pieces, including one of his own.

On 9 October, pianist-composer Conrad Tao will release his new album Pictures, the anticipated follow-up to Voyages, his “spiky debut” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker). The new recording features Modest Mussorgsky’s monumental Pictures at an Exhibition, re-envisioned through the 21-year-old Tao’s “probing intellect and open-hearted vision” (The New York Times) and reframed by music written over the past 30 years: Elliott Carter’s Two Thoughts About The Piano, Tōru Takemitsu’s Les yeux clos ii, David Lang’s cage and wed, and the world-premiere recording of a new work by Tao himself, a “thoughtful and mature composer” (NPR) in his own right.

“These are all particular, deliberate pieces that use images as a springboard in order to consider memory in all its difficult complexity,” he explains the programme.

Tao’s own composition, A Walk (for Emilio), is dedicated to one of his earliest piano teachers, Emilio del Rosario, who died in 2010. “I sometimes imagine spending time with him today. I imagine the two of us sharing the various things we’ve both done since I moved away; I imagine the two of us talking about music as we always did. A Walk (for Emilio) is about those imagined memories. It alternates between ambling, freely lyrical passages and anxious, pleading, yearning chords.”

The album ends as it begins, with music from fellow NYC-based composer David Lang. Tao notes the juxtaposition within the album closer wed: “Lang asks for the piece to be performed ‘with almost no expression’, yet the piece feels tender and shot through with emotion. These contradictions are crucial to the piece’s strange, almost alien beauty. Inspired by a devastatingly poignant image – a wedding taking place at a deathbed – it captures a particularly fragile balance between joy and suffering.

“Maybe that’s what this album is ultimately about: in the face of loss and hopelessness, finding and celebrating precious glimmers of humanity.”

Tao will launch the album on 12 October in New York with an intimate performance at the Lower East Side venue Spectrum, hosted by Groupmuse. He will also perform the Pictures repertoire at Boston radio station WCRB’s Fraser Studio, where the album was recorded.