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Pianist Thomas Kotcheff Releases Debut Albun 'Songs Of Insurrection' Next Month

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The disc, produced by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, comes out Friday, November 13 on the Coviello Contemporary label.

Pianist Thomas Kotcheff Releases Debut Albun 'Songs Of Insurrection' Next Month

For his debut solo album, rising Los Angeles-based pianist Thomas Kotcheff has taken on a formidable challenge: the premiere recording of American composer Frederic Rzewski's virtuosic (and timely) Songs of Insurrection, based on protest songs from seven countries around the world.

The disc, produced by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, comes out Friday, November 13 on the Coviello Contemporary label.

That evening, Kotcheff will perform a free online recital with three movements of Songs of Insurrection, an except from Rzewski's Four Hands with the piano duo HOCKET, and a newly commissioned work by composer Jordan Nelson. The concert will stream 5 pm Pacific Time / 8 pm Eastern Time at thomaskotcheff.com/livestream.

Kotcheff describes Songs of Insurrection as "fiendishly difficult to play." The seven-part work lasts 75 minutes, with optional episodes of improvisation. It took Kotcheff more than a year to learn Songs of Insurrection, but the effort paid off handsomely: Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times described his performance on the LA's Piano Spheres series as "dazzling." Kotcheff also earned San Francisco Classical Voice's Audience Choice Award for his rendition, edging out pianist Yuja Wang for "Best Instrumental Recital Performance."

At 31, Kotcheff has been immersed in Rzewski's music for more than a decade, with several of the composer's progressive-minded works in his repertoire. In 2018, Kotcheff completed his Doctor of Musical Arts exams at USC with a lecture on Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. When he sent Rzewski an advance copy of this recording, the composer called it "superb" and "magnificent," adding, "I love your improvisations!"

Kotcheff, an award-winning composer in his own right, feels a particular affinity for Rzewski as a fellow composer-pianist with a special understanding of the instrument. However, Rzewski's brilliant piano writing is only part what drew Kotcheff to this work.

"Rzewski wrote Songs of Insurrection in 2016, the beginning of a very trying time in US and world politics," says Kotcheff. "I wanted to perform and record a piece that represented what it means to be alive at this moment in history. My final performance of this piece, as well as this recording, was done the week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. While so much of our collective reality seems to have changed since then, the message of this piece - about disparate voices coming together and fighting for democracy, about humanity's collective struggles, a piece that reflects on freedom - rings truer than ever."

Songs of Insurrection comes with liner note essays by three writers: Zak Cheney-Rice, who covers race and politics for New York magazine; composer Ted Hearne, known for works that engage with vital social issues; and Kristi Brown-Montesano, Chair of the music history faculty at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, where Kotcheff teaches piano and music theory. Underscoring the album's theme, the artwork consists of images taken by Black photographers J Pinder, Chaz Niell, and Julien James at recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Songs of Insurrection is based on seven songs of protest from various countries and eras. In order: Die Moorsoldaten (The Peat Bog Soldiers), from Germany, is one of Europe's best-known protest songs, written in 1933 by leftist prisoners of the Third Reich. Katyusha is a Soviet-era Russian song written in 1938 in support of soldiers fighting against the Nazis. Derived from an early 20th-century Black Spiritual, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around was a freedom song of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Foggy Dew, written in 1919 by Irish priest Charles O'Neill, is associated with the 1916 Easter Rising, a crucial episode in the fight for Irish independence. Grândola, Vila Morena, composed in 1971 by Zeca Afonso, served as a signal to start the revolution that led to the beginning of democratic rule in Portugal.

Los Cuatro Generales was a Spanish song of resistance against Francisco Frano's 36-year dictatorial regime. The oldest of the songs in the collection, Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller, was a product of the 1890s Gabo Peasant Revolt in Korea against exploitative taxation.

In characteristic fashion, Rzewski takes these melodies as starting points for his own variations. He invites the pianist to conclude each movement with improvisation, which Kotcheff does on movements 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7. The most elaborate of Kotcheff's improvisations, on movement 3, has the character of an intricate, fantastical cadenza.

Notes Brown-Montesano, "Rzewski meditates on each of these seven songs in turn, introducing them in recognizable form before reimagining them in a wide array of styles: neo-baroque counterpoint, atonality, American blues and jazz, chordal hymnody, and the fantasia gestures of Western classical keyboard improvisers from Bach to Skryabin, and much more...

"A nota bene on the first page of the score of Songs of Insurrection reminds the performer that improvising is optional and should never be planned, including 'the decision to do them or not to do them.' Even here, Rzewski safeguards freedom and authenticity, for no true insurrection is possible without them."

Thomas Kotcheff (b. 1988) is a Los Angeles based composer and pianist. His music has been described as "truly beautiful and inspired" (icareifyoulisten.com) and "explosive" (Gramophone magazine). His compositions have been performed internationally by The Riot Ensemble, New York Youth Symphony, Wild Up, Sandbox Percussion, Trio Appassionata, Argus Quartet, Lyris Quartet, Alinde Quartett, USC Thornton Edge, The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, HOCKET, Peabody Percussion Group, Latitude 49, and the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble amongst others.

Thomas has won numerous awards and honors including a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Presser Foundation Award, New York Youth Symphony's First Music Commission, Aspen Music Festival's Hermitage Prize, a BMI Student Composer Award, a SCI/ASCAP Student Commission, multiple awards from the National Association of Composers USA, and the RED NOTE New Music Festival Composition Competition amongst others.

He has been artist in residence at The Byrdcliffe Art Colony, The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, The Avaloch Farm Music Institute, The Studios of Key West, and The Hermitage Artist Retreat.

As a new music pianist, Thomas has dedicated himself to commissioning and premiering new piano works. His playing has been described as "dazzling" and "brilliant" by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times. His recent recording of Frederic Rzewski's Songs of Insurrection comes out on Coviello Contemporary in Fall 2020 and his recording of Jordan Nelson's Songbook for solo piano will be released in 2021. He is the founding member of the Los Angeles-based piano duo HOCKET, with pianist Sarah Gibson.

Thomas currently serves on the music theory and ear training faculty at the Colburn School and is a faculty member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Composer Fellowship Program. He holds degrees in composition and piano performance from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and The University of Southern California. Visit thomaskotcheff.com.



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