This is a review of Performance Spaces for the 21st Century's final performance for their 2020 Modern Music Fest. The performed work was Frederic Rzewski’s 1975 piano composition, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!," which was based on Sergio Ortega's 1973 anthem, "‘¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido," which was written as a political rally-song in response to the controversial coup d'etat which ultimately ended up with the tyrannical Pinochet regime taking over power in Chile until 1990. It was performed by the highly acclaimed pianist Conrad Tao, 2019 award winner and 2012 grant recipient.
On September 6th, PS21 put on their final concert for their Modern Music Fest, their curatorial ‘answer’ to the ubiquitous loss of performance opportunities for musicians across the globe. Frederic Rzewski’s 1975 piano work, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” was performed by the highly talented and award-winning pianist Conrad Tao who, in 2012, was the recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and the 2019s recipient of The New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Award for Outstanding Sound Design / Music Composition. This particular composition, although being musically and texturally elaborate, served an important political role that Sunday early evening, that being as a demonstrator of the universal necessity for a musicians’ perspective in the ever-present struggle against the global threat of governmental despotism. Structurally, the one hour work consists of 36 variations, six groupings of six variations, all based around the Chilean workers' anthem ‘¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido,’ written by Sergio Ortega three years before Rzewski’s rendition as a form of musical protest against the Pinochet regime who, in 1973, rose in power and ultimately gained control of Chile in a coup d’etat ostensibly condoned by the United States. In Conrad Tao’s pre-performance talk, he posed the question, “Can music on its own provide the impetus for action,” and his hypothetical question seemed to hang in the air the entire night as if it materialized into a sonic interlocutor and sat in the audience all on its own accord. Before Conrad began, he played a recording of Ortega’s anthem sung by a large [protesting?] crowd, the recording then transforming into mass clapping before cutting away and leaving the sonic memories of 1973 in its wake.
I applaud Conrad for making this educational choice, as it makes the political overtones of Rzewksi’s composition tangible to the listener's ear, and likewise, it reminded the audience, and certainly me, that political freedom is an epochless struggle and geographically homeless but belonging to everyone everywhere. Conrad took no formal breaks between groupings, instead, he utilized musical and textural juxtapositions, including pauses, to generate an unspoken internal form, made tangible by his phenomenal usage of physicality, intelligent expressionism, and expert ability to enter and exit the music as needed, i.e., wiping sweat away when his palms got sweaty and secretly smiling at a baby’s cry. Musically, Rzewski treats the original anthem indeed like a memory, choosing to plainly state Ortega’s tune in a clear melodic fashion at times, at others in broken dislocation, although sometimes simply abandoning the tune altogether. His love of theatricalism comes through in his continuous use of expansion and contraction, his passages venturing into the styles of serialism, contrapuntalism, and romantic lyricism, with less than subtle hints of Shostakovich, Satie, and even Gershwin and jazz influences in the mixture. At the thirty-minute mark, Rzewski’s usage of Schoenbergian, auditory vandalism shifts quickly into a somber dirge, accompanied by the hum of cicadas. A minute later he shifts into cacophony with glissandi, forearm clusters, and extreme range utilizations, but two minutes later restates the main theme, this time in a jazz temperament with subsequent flourishments. The piece includes a passage with the unfinished, diluted melody at minute 45, a Bb6 drilling passage at minute 51, an ‘improvised,’ then ‘movement perpetuals,’ then Bachian, then ‘Miroirs’-esque escapade at minute 60, and even a passage, steeped in Schubertian surrealism at 1:12:00.
This is what makes Rzewski’s ‘Theme and Variations’ so labyrinthine, the inability to designate it any standard style, nor characterize its aesthetic as a whole. Isn’t that fitting though, that he wrote a piece which shuns musical nomenclature, and instead rejoices in its variationlism? At times, the work makes fun of itself, for example, the one minute period from 1:17:00-1:18:00, which shifts from Ravelian romanticism to 20th-century brutality, and further to serial fragmentation, only to complete the variational circle by reintroducing Ortega’s tune a minute later, thus signaling the pieces conclusion. Conrad Tao is masterfully outstanding in his role of musico-historical translator, his job being to translate Rzewski’s epochal interpretation of Ortega’s epochal music for a drastically dissimilar epoch. Yes, he only played piano music, but it was more than that. The audience could feel ‘that’ the afternoon of September 6th, the intangible, authentic linkage of Conrad and Rzewski, Conrad and them, Conrad and the piano, even Conrad and society itself. Because of PS21’s remarkable cinematic camera angles, viewers were able to see both Conrad’s facial expressions and playing up close, a feat not ubiquitously available before COVID in an online format. PS21 has made the very best of a tenuous situation, they not only have made possible the hearing of under-appreciated works but have brought to the masses the taste of temporalities known only by those who experienced them, thus enriching and disseminating notions of who we are and who we could be as a global community. Conrad Tao and PS21 gave those protesting Chileans a modern platform and let them sing without interference, an example of musical topicality done at its very finest.
(First photo is Sergio Ortega, the second photo is Frederic Rzewski)