The Crypt Sessions: Conrad Tao – American Rage

April 5th, Church of Intercession, Harlem

The Crypt Sessions at the Neo-Gothic Church of Intercession is an intimate musical experience.  Now in its second season, the musical program includes wine tasting and hor’s d ‘oeuvres provided by Magnvm Opvs and Ward 8 Events in a casual atmosphere.  Produced by Unison Media and curated by Andrew Ousley the series could not have picked a more interesting venue.  The underground stone crypt is elegantly raw while offering excellent acoustics and ageless beauty.

Conrad Tao, who has been described as “ferociously talented” by Time Out, gamely stepped up to fill in for David Greilsammer who fell ill and was unable to perform.  Tao’s program entitled, American Rage, was comprised of Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata sandwiched by two works from Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballads, which are essentially revamped worker and protest songs.

A blistering performance right from the start, Which Side Are you On? began with a few stanzas sung by Florence Reece.  (A haunting reprise, given that our president had recently signed a resolution repealing protections for employees afforded by the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order.)  Not afraid of the improvisatory nature of the piece, Tao developed tension early and often continually piercing the rough exterior of the protest song with moments poise and power.  Tao deftly explored the works’ polyphonic complexity driving into a spellbinding middle section, then drifting off into reverie before building again towards a furious finale.  A vehement sendoff to an evening that held a sense of musical urgency.


Photo credit: Andrew Ousley


Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, a rarely played anomaly from his “vernacular period,” was beautifully resurrected by Tao. The artist explains in his engaging Pieces of Me video series, that he found the score buried in the archives of the Aspen Music Library.  He describes the work as “intensely beautiful” adding, “it felt like opening up a portal to another world.”   Tao finds resolve in the poignancy of the opening statement to the more edgier realms of foreboding angst, bravely handling the juxtapositions of utopian hope and despair.  The interchange of dissonance and consonance creates a very modern moodiness.  The final Adante sostenuto has been described by Uncle Dave Lewis as “giving the impression of immobility, like a clock winding down.”  This idea dramatically fits our present political predicament as we bear witness to the sad slow-motion meltdown of government, our liberties vanquishing.


Photo Credit: Andrew Ousley


It is interesting to note that while Copland was composing this Piano Sonata he was named to an advisory panel within the State Department’s Office of Inter-American affairs. In 1941 Copland traveled to South America performing concerts in a goodwill pedagogical tour as part of the Roosevelt administration’s Good Neighbor policy.  No doubt, the composer soaked in the music from the area.  The composition found resolution in Santiago, Chile and premiered in Buenos Aires on October 21, 1941, reinforcing the notion that music has no borders.

Popularized by Lead Belly and Pete Seeger, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,  another ballad from Rzewski,  starts with two bass notes, graduating to chords, Tao squeezing all the percussion out of the Yamaha Grand, finally physically crushing forearm clusters of notes.  The subterranean chamber echoing the blues with a ragtime feel interspersed with moments of true discord that mimics the machinery of the mills.

Showing respect to the specificity of the performance space, Tao closed the evening with an encore of Debussy’s prelude La cathédrale engloutie’ (The Sunken Cathedral) a work, as he said, “without rage.”  Spiritually invigorating, the piece harkens back to choral sections of Copland’s Piano Sonata where tension gives way to peace.  All the harmonic planing leaves the impression of a determined glimmer, like moonlight on the sea.

The Crypt Sessions continues next month with a solo cello performance by Joshua Roman on May 3rd.  More information at