At the risk of stating the obvious, most of history’s great piano music composers were also very accomplished pianists. Many of them — including Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff — were considered among the finest pianists of their day and performed their own music as well as others’ compositions in public. Of this group, only Rachmaninoff lived into the age of recording, and his performances of Chopin and Schumann are still touchstones of the art.
In our age of academic specialization, this paradigm has faded away. Conservatories train composers and performers, but rarely at the same time. In reality, most pianists worth their salt as curious artists regularly create original music, just not for public consumption. But perhaps a change is in the wind. Marc-André Hamelin, a former Queen Village native, has been amassing a personal oeuvre for years, and a few years ago he finally released the first CD of his own works, which are delightfully dazzling and custom-made for his legendary virtuosity, much in the manner of Rachmaninoff.
Then there is Julian Cochran, a young Australian pianist/composer whose first CD consists exclusively of his own works. Their very titles — Mazurka, Prelude, Scherzo; all forms mastered by Chopin — cast Cochran as something of a throwback, and the music itself seems constructed in late 19th-century language. But there’s a spontaneity in his style; his music is very immediate and often thrilling. Not surprisingly for someone of his vintage, you can also catch a good deal of his playing on YouTube.
Back in the States you may have heard the name Conrad Tao. If you haven’t yet, fasten your seat belt; Tao’s career is taking off like a rocket. He has been a regular guest on the terrific NPR show From the Top, and was named one of the 30 most influential musicians under 30 by Forbes magazine (alongside Lady Gaga). His debut album includes piano music by Meredith Monk, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, as well as several intriguing and distinctive works of his own. One of the more fascinating works is scored for piano and iPad. Oh, by the way, he is not quite 20 years old. The future of classical music? Why not?
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