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Pianist captures Gershwin's charisma in Pittsburgh Symphony debut

11.02.15
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In lieu of its usual composer of the year program, this season the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is presenting four different composers, each of whom is also a performer.
On Friday night at Heinz Hall, Conrad Tao played a concerto by a different composer — George Gershwin — on a program that also included the symphony’s performance of his orchestral work, “Pangu.”  At 21, Mr. Tao has already performed with an impressive roster of orchestras, including the major symphonies in Dallas, Baltimore, Toronto and Detroit. Friday was his local debut.
His interpretation of Gershwin’s Concerto in F served as the highlight of the program, conducted by former PSO principal guest conductor Leonard Slatkin. Mr. Tao’s pitch-perfect interpretation seemed to ooze the spirit of 1920s New York — which was fitting for a work that Gershwin initially called the “New York Concerto.” Mr. Tao leaned heavily on the work’s intrinsic syncopated character, which he punched out with an in-your-face, American candor (the first-movement duet with slapstick comes to mind). But he also displayed a lustrous tone and nimble technique. There were a few loose screws in the ensemble playing, which was loud compared to the soloist in the first movement. 
The concert began on his compositional side, with Mr. Tao’s “Pangu,” a short piece for pairs of woodwinds, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, percussion and strings. The 2012 work conveys a Chinese creation myth involving the titular Pangu, who divided heaven and Earth from the egg he had slept in for 18,000 years. It opened with undulating, quasi-minimalist textures, over which free melodic ideas floated and emerged. On a first listen, the piece had intriguing elements, but it struck me as cinematic.  Read the rest of the review here