After a night off on Sunday, it was back to all things PuSh on Monday, with the North American premiere of American composer Frederic Rzewski's Songs of Insurrection at the Fox Cabaret. This was a co-presentation with Music on Main, who actually co-commissioned the work back in 2015 as a showcase for the virtuoso Flemish pianist Daan Vandewalle.
For Songs, Rzewski has taken classic protest tunes from around the world (Germany, Russian, the US, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Korea) and rewritten portions of their melodies. In so doing, he wrests the songs from the dustheap of history and makes them new again, showing their continued relevance for our present age. Indeed, the Civil Rights-era Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around seems especially pertinent in an America that's even more racially divided than ever.
I confess that I couldn't always distinguish one song from another, nor determine where one ended and the next began. As Music on Main Artistic Director David Pay writes in his program notes, Rzewski permits the pianist to improvise between movements, "improvisation being the greatest form of freedom and personal agency in music." And on this front Vandewalle--who is an exceptional post-classical interpreter--got progressively bolder as the program progressed, moving from flourishes on the keyboard to tapping the side of the piano and eventually standing up and plucking its strings.
For if in this work Rzewski turns the grand piano into a political instrument, then Vandewalle's performance showed that this includes all parts of it.