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Keyboard Thursday album review: Conrad Tao treats Getty miniatures with large-scale care

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Super-talented young Illinois native Conrad Tao has made a little recorded detour through some piano works of American composer-philanthropist Gordon Getty, with wonderful results — hopefully contributing to the liberation of art music world from some enduring prejudices in the process.

gettyFirst of all, let’s deal with the music itself. The Pentatone Classics album contains 23 sketches and miniatures, most of them collected into two suites: the Homework Suite of five pieces, which dates from 1962, while Getty was studying at the San Francisco Conservatory, and the later Ancestor Suite, which contains 11 pieces.

Although this isn’t complex or serious music, having a true virtuoso interpret it puts each piece into the best possible light. Tao (who turns 19 in a few weeks) brings an easy, beguiling lightness to Getty’s creations, many of which do make serious technical demands.

There are many young pianists throwing themselves into the performance of miniatures these days. They present a fine challenge in conveying mood, structure and narrative in a very short space of time.

So that’s prejudice No. 1 dispelled. There is value and enjoyment to be had from short works.

Prejudice No. 2 is also in the process of being demolished: that tonal writing has no place in the new music universe. Getty, who is in his late-70s, has spent his whole life battling an atonal aesthetic.

As he relates in the album notes: “My teacher at the Conservatory, Sol Joseph, once asked me if I expected to move on to atonalism. I told him I kind of doubted it.”

And so Getty would have been dismissed there and then.

Which brings us to Prejudice No. 3, concerning the wealthy dilettante.

Getty inherited billions in oil money, so anything he has done has been for the sheer pleasure of doing it rather than to make a living. As is the case with a 17th or 18th century prince taking an interest in music, we condescendingly smile, nod, then return our attentions to the serious composers, the ones who had to struggle for their art.

But Getty has a clear sense of what he’s trying to do. The results are not just coherent but compelling. And we should applaud that.

For more details on this album, click here.

Here is a little snapshot of Getty’s aesthetic, through the song “The Going from a World We Know,” from White Election. Composer Jake Heggie is at the piano. Matt Haimovitz is the cellist. The soprano is Lisa Delan:

John Terauds

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