At first blush, it seems a pity that Lansing audiences will not soak up the full variety of musical experience bottled up inside 27-year-old composer and pianist Conrad Tao, the star soloist in Friday’s Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert.
Tao’s compositions go straight up your spine into the most undefended parts of your psyche. Check out his luminous, soul-wrenching electro-acoustic concerto for piano and iPad, “An Adjustment,” commissioned by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and written in the wake of a bout with depression.
Tao, who is based in Manhattan, has had five pieces premiered by the New York Philharmonic with conductor Jaap van Zweden, including “Everything Must Go,” an audacious curtain-raiser designed to blend straight into Bruckner’s huge Eighth Symphony.
As a pianist, he has played the biggest concertos with top orchestras around the world, most recently the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony.
He’s spent hours huddled in his bedroom on idiosyncratic obsessions like remixing Björk and mashing up Britney Spears’ “Everytime” with the theme from “Twin Peaks.”
So, he’s doing what in Lansing again? Mozart? Unroll those red eyes. If Mozart is OK with the protean genius of Tao, it should be OK with us.
“I do a million things, but I’m still a classical pianist,” he said. “We’re so lucky to have this enormous concerto repertoire. I’m not interested in trying to run away from it. This concerto is such incredible music. Maybe I’m just greedy.”
The moody, minor key 24th piano concerto is the centerpiece of a concert that also includes Haydn’s 90th Symphony and a suite by Francis Poulenc.
There will likely be an encore, and that could mean almost anything from Elliott Carter to synth pop. However, judging by the way Tao glows when he talks about the Mozart concerto, we may be getting a nice cross section of his varied gifts, even without an encore.
When Tao started performing Mozart in concert a few years ago, he was inspired by a new wave of performers like Mozart specialist Robert Levin, who “very, very powerfully made the case for Mozart being flesh and blood.”
“Levin talks about resisting the urge to make Mozart cute, and that really resonated with me,” Tao said. In Tao’s view, all of Mozart’s music, however elegant and formally refined, is packed with the vivid character and dramatic interplay of opera, a genre in which Mozart soared.
“I fought against the urge to make him a sacred cow, an untouchable genius,” Tao said.
More recently, he finds himself “doing as little as possible” when playing Mozart, “seeing if I can feel the shape of the piece coursing through me as I play.”
“It’s an emotionally ambiguous piece,” he said. “There’s a lot of darkness, a lot of mystery.” The slowly sucking mystery at the heart of the concerto gives the pianist intriguing room for choice.
“Within the first 10 bars, he has taken you around all the 12 tones available to us in the Western tuning system, in this ambiguous, slightly frightening way, using a kind of hollow sonority,” he said.
Tao’s younger self would have dialed up the drama, but older, wiser, mid-20s Tao is not so sure.
“Do I signal all of this, or do I try to listen to the music, treat it simply and allow that mystery to emerge from the notes and carry me further?” he asked.
The trick, for Tao, is to find a balance between backing off, in deference to the score, or pushing for “immediate and spontaneous communication.”
The question opens up a black box.
“It’s a different angle on whether or not you can hear the insistent and immediate presence of another person,” Tao said.
You may chew on that Zen koan to no avail, but take comfort in knowing that when you get part of Tao, you get all of him — the pianist, the thinker and even a snippet of the composer and improviser. In January 2021, Tao crossed a big line in a classical pianist’s life and improvised his own cadenza (the solo bit just before the end) to Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto in a broadcast with the Helsinki Philharmonic. He plans to do the same with Mozart in Lansing next week.
The Helsinki gig was Tao’s first post-pandemic-lockdown concerto. He was cadenza-ready, having spent much of the previous year improvising at home.
“In those first few months of lockdown in 2020, the passage of time felt so strange,” he said. “The days felt endless and the weeks flew by. Improvising kept me in my body.”
It’s a skill he plans to develop in coming concerts, even if it means matching wits with the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.
“At some point, you’ve got to do it,” he said. “I was too scared to do it for a long time, but the lockdown period lit a fire under my ass.”
Having worked with nearly every major orchestra in the country, Tao still looks forward to visiting mid-sized cities like Lansing.
“I haven’t been to every single state, but I’ve come close, and it’s really gratifying to see how many solid orchestras there are,” he said.
One of Tao’s happiest memories as a composer wasn’t in New York or L.A., but in Florida, after writing a difficult piano concerto for the Atlantic Classical Orchestra. It was a wild beast, replete with exotic elements like Cuban percussion and a Chinese gong, but the orchestra nailed it.
“They worked super hard, and it was one of the happiest premiere experiences I’ve ever had,” he said. “In some ways, I feel as if that wasn’t because it wasn’t ‘just another commission’ for a large orchestra.”
Tao talked with City Pulse last week just a few hours before going on stage to tackle Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with another fine regional orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony.
“There’s a different energy in the room when you’re not playing together every single week,” he said. “It sometimes feels more exciting. There’s certainly less of what I often feel is a posture of jadedness. It’s a generalization, but I’ve noticed that people are happier to be there.”
Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Conrad Tao, piano
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall
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