Conrad Tao on grand piano
Conrad Tao explores classical music’s capacity to move us and affect us, both as listeners and performers. Centrepiece of the concert is Jason Eckardt’s virtuoso fantasia Echoes’ White Veil. Around and in contrast to Eckardt, Conrad Tao has selected works that in various ways represent the tradition in which he grew up, from Rachmaninov and Bach to Julia Wolfe’s dramatic and moving Compassion.
The American pianist and composer Conrad Tao has been described by the New York Times as a musician with a “probing intellect and open-hearted vision”. Tao made his debut as a child, both as violinist and pianist. However, extremely tired of the child prodigy epithet, he has developed an artistic style entirely in his own right. His technical skill is merely a tool for the great story he seeks to convey in each individual performance.
Tao does not primarily see himself as an interpreter; the performance – creating in the here and now – is as creative as the composing itself. “What should I do with this music – and how? Every appearance is completely new, and what I do in that hour, minute, second, can never be redone. Constantly new worlds to explore.” Tao is also a successful composer who moves between classical and contemporary, experimental and popular culture expressions, with a list of works that include piano, chamber and orchestral music, and sometimes featuring unconventional elements.
Conrad Tao constantly explores the issue of why music affects us on such a deep and personal level and is therefore an avid advocate of art music. Without compromising, he tries to appeal to an audience of his peers, including through the Unplay Festival in New York, and as a teenager, he appeared on the Forbes list of the world’s most influential young musicians in the company of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.
In this evening’s programme, his starting point is Echoes’ White Veil by Jason Eckardt, which Tao regards as a masterpiece in the virtuoso piano tradition. Eckardt started his musical career playing heavy metal and jazz but he devoted himself completely to composing after discovering Anton Webern’s music. At the same age as Tao is now, Eckardt wrote this evening’s piece, which was inspired by the prose poem ‘Echoes’ by the American poet William Stanley Merwin.
Tao lets Eckardt’s obdurate and breathtaking works be encompassed by a programme of more familiar works in what he himself calls a “conservatory tradition” that he grew up with, starting with Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue by Bach. Like Eckardt, this piece by Bach is rich and brilliantly grandiloquent, full of grand, dramatic gestures.
In Compassion, which Julia Wolfe wrote after witnessing up close the 9/11 attacks, Tao changes focus; broad chords in a long, sometimes violent crescendo are maximised by a sudden, silent resolution. Rachmaninov’s etude no 2 from Études-Tableaux op 39 emerges, it seems, from this nothingness; anxiously shifting like rippling waves on the open sea, constantly in motion. On top of that, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A-flat major gives comfort and relief and, in Tao’s own words, ”summarises and reveals a more ambiguous and sometimes unclear relationship between pianist, virtuosity and musical expression.”
Text: Jenny Leonardz