Thomas Kotcheff: Premier Recording, Songs Of Insurrection

Thomas Kotcheff: Premier Recording, Songs Of Insurrection

Friday, December 11, 2020

For his debut solo album, rising Los Angeles-based pianist Thomas Kotcheff (KHN Alum 2014) 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, was released on Friday, November 13 on the Coviello Contemporary label. That evening, Kotcheff performed 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.

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 music theory and ear training. 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.