Gordon Getty: Homework Suite. Ancestor Suite. Three Traditional Pieces. First Adventures. Raise the Colors. Andantino und Scherzo Pensieroso. Conrad Tao, piano. PENTATONE 5186505 (SACD: 53:12)
By Robert Markow
If you have heard of Gordon Peter Getty – and most people have – it is almost certainly in the context of his activity as heir to an oil empire (sold to Texaco in 1984), venture capitalist, investor and philanthropist, especially to the arts. Fourth son of oil magnate J. Paul Getty, Gordon is, according to Forbes, the 212th richest American, with net assets of $2 billion, give or take a few hundred million. He is also a composer of classical music. It would be all too easy to regard what he writes as claiming attention only because of his billionaire status, but this would be as unfair as it is unwarranted. On the basis of Conrad Tao’s program of piano music, Getty has genuine talent. He has at least a dozen recordings to his credit, and with his 80th birthday approaching next year (Dec, 20, 2014), maybe it’s time serious attention was paid to this serious composer.
The CD offers a program of miniatures composed over the span of half a century (1962 to 2012), but with no stylistic development. As the composer says in his brief program notes, they might as well have been written in reverse order. Two approach five minutes in length, but most are in the two-to-three minute range. I listened to the curiously titled Homework Suite (five pieces) and Ancestor Suite (eleven pieces), the bulk of the program, before I learned the names of the individual numbers, and couldn’t help trying to guess what each might be describing. In character, they much remind me of Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Album for the Young, each a unique gem, light in spirit but generous in content. Heard in succession, they provide enough variety to warrant continuous listening. It turns out most of them bear dance titles (waltz, polka, gavotte, etc.), but regardless of what you choose to call them, they exude charm and elegance. Getty freely admits that “my music seems to belong more in the nineteenth century, with inklings of others…” Think Schubert distilled through the alembic of Satie or Poulenc in a playful or irreverent mood.
The 19-year-old American pianist (and violinist and composer) Conrad Tao plays these pieces with obvious love, commitment and meticulous care in matters of dynamics, color, contrast and rhythmic nuance. This is no toss-off exercise. Tao tells a story, paints a picture or creates a little adventure with every piece. His playing is so imaginative and persuasive that he virtually commands your attention. The music is for the most part technically simple enough for a third- or fourth-year piano student to handle, and offers highly attractive material for recital purposes to complement well-worn repertory. The recorded sound is clear and clean, though the piano (a Steingraeger) is rather brittle and clanky in the upper register – my only complaint about an otherwise highly enjoyable release.
Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada.