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Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia Presents a Dazzling New Talent

Seen And Heard International

It is almost galling to realize this, but the program that opened the Kimmel Center’s 2015-2016 concert offerings may very possibly end up as the most thrilling concert I shall have attended all season.
There are concerts that fall short of expectation. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia’s first concert of the season was of the diametrically opposite character. I had no idea in advance what to expect. What I experienced in the reality was the advent of a dazzling new talent, one that showed every promise of going on, both as composer and as pianist, to be a dominant figure in the 21st century’s musical landscape.
Conrad Tao, who was born in Urbana, Illinois, and studies piano with Yoheved Kaplinsky at Juilliard and composition with Christopher Theofanidis of Yale, is just 21 years old. Yet everything about him—his pianism, his approach to composition, his undemonstratively charming platform demeanor—already bespeaks maturity.
Tao gave us the world premiere (actually the second of two performances on successive days) of An Adjustment, a Chamber Orchestra commission of essentially piano-concerto character. Its title apparently alludes to the music’s role in dealing with a period of depression in the composer’s young life, from which he seems to have successfully emerged.
The piece plays for about 30 minutes, and is laid out in two movements, each in two sections. That design, you may notice, recalls the formal structure of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto—but Tao has his own reasons, and his new work, in my judgement, need fear nothing from comparison with one of the 20th century’s accepted classics. The prevailing impression left by the piece is of a fearlessly up-to-date musical language, situated somewhere between tonal and atonal elements, sometimes astringent but often sensuously luxuriant in sound. Rather like the great Xenakis, Tao is a composer whose recourse to contemporary techniques serves not to conceal but rather to illuminate by contrast an underlying vein of rich romanticism. With all the uncompromising vehemence of many passages in the piece, it also features some richly expressive string textures, and moments, like the well-judged chordal writing for the horns in the big climax near the end, that penetrate the orchestral textures very effectively. The piano part, too, embraces lyrical delicacy as well as emphatic declamation.
An Adjustment earns its “concerto” subtitle not from any specific reference to familiar classical or romantic formal devices, but from the sheer force of personality that the solo part exerts over the contribution of a by-no-means damped-down orchestral complement. There is also a pre-recorded electronic track, which, without being too obtrusive, supplied a welcome sonorous underpinning to the solo and orchestral textures.
Impeccably partnered by music director Dirk Brossé and an evidently enthusiastic orchestra, Tao unfurled a fearsome range of pianistic technique and expressive freedom. Returning after intermission, he showed himself equally at home in Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto, which emerged from this performance sounding at once stronger in conception and more beguiling in manner than ever. As notable as the way Tao ranged from firm classical restraint to warm emotion, coruscating brilliance, and a delightful flexibility of rhythm was his ability to take a seemingly prosaic accompaniment, as at the second theme of the scherzando second movement, and make it dance.
What is really galling it to realize that, at my advanced age, I cannot realistically look forward to a long acquaintance with Conrad Tao’s achievements as composer or pianist. But I can declare with confidence that, barring some unforeseen reverse (and gifted artists do sometimes lose their way), my younger readers will be enjoying his work—and his works—for a long time to come.