Frederic Rzewski is one of the major figures writing for piano in our time, and securing him as composer-in-residence was a major coup for New England Conservatory's annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Piano Performance. Founder/artistic director Stephen Drury translates the SICPP acronym as ''sick puppy," but composers like Rzewski are keeping the piano alive and wagging its tail.
He is also a fascinating pianist and a master of multitasking, as his solo recital in Jordan Hall last night demonstrated. He doesn't conform to the image of a concert artist, appearing onstage in a red shirt with his pens clipped to its breast pocket; his way of acknowledging applause is to scratch his ear. He made a point of welcoming latecomers (''let them in . . . but don't let them out," he quipped). He does not appear to be interested at all in the piano's historic ability to imitate other instruments, even a full orchestra, or the creamiest legato of an opera singer. Instead he revels in the piano's identity as the most complex and varied of all percussion instruments. Flights of finger-filigree lacework are not for him, but he is almost unrivaled in his range of attack, articulation, and dynamics, all propelled by a sense of rhythm as strong and flexible as a healthy spine. And while he is assaulting the keyboard, some of his music simultaneously requires him to pound patterns on the wooden parts of the instrument, grunt, moan, growl, shout words, whistle, even recite a nursery rhyme.
His program featured mostly recent works not included on Nonesuch's seven-CD retrospective a couple of years ago. Most of his pieces are huge -- ''The Road," his ''novel" for piano, is heading toward eight hours. But he builds his large structures out of small fragments, like a mosaic, only none of the fragments is the same size, shape, or color. But they are cemented by a highly personal but irrefutable logic that is enlivened by elements of improvisation.
''Andante con moto" is a set of variations on the slow movement of Beethoven's ''Appassionata" Sonata. Rzewski began with Beethoven's music, really moving it along, and with sharp rhythmic edges softened occasionally by ornaments in baroque style. The variations look at the squirming details, as if through a microscope. ''The Babble," a recent section from ''The Road," is about the disorders of the modern world viewed through the prism of an organizing intelligence. ''Ballad #5" is another set of variations on a work song from lifers in a Texas prison, and ''Spells" is a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, genial and full of the unexpected.
Rzewski has progenitors -- Ives, Ruggles, John Cage -- but like them, he is an original, an American maverick, whose way of looking at the world makes us see it differently too.