It’s been a great month for piano in Chicago, with Daniil Trifonov burnishing his reputation with a memorable downtown recital two weeks ago.
And on Friday night, Ran Dank made a spectacular Chicago debut at Mandel Hall. The Israeli pianist delivered a powerhouse performance of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! that was as dazzling in its pyrotechnics as it was expressive and insightful.
Written in 1975 for Ursula Oppens, The People United is a modern keyboard classic, and the greatest work in variation form ever written by an American composer. Taking its musical theme from the title Chilean Leftist ode, Rzewski mines the long, indelible melody for a set of 36 variations that span 50 minutes. The People United is epic, not only in scale but in the daunting technical challenges posed to the soloist. Rzewski spins out an extraordinary array of riches from the populist song with remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness.
Kudos to Amy Iwano, executive director of University of Chicago Presents, for programming Rzewski’s neglected masterwork and seeing it through. When the originally scheduled Benjamin Hochman canceled, Iwano had to find one of the handful of pianists that was both available and had Rzewski’s work in their repertoire.
The situation proved fortuitous. Even in a work that has received celebrated recording by the likes of Marc-Andre Hamelin, Igor Levit, and Rzewski himself, Ran Dank’s performance was so remarkable and complete in every way, it’s hard to believe anyone else could have done better.