Threes are the charm for Pacific Symphony

12.04.15
The Orange County Register

Conrad Tao was back. Pacific Symphony audiences were introduced to the pianist (and composer) back in 2011, when he substituted for an indisposed Yuja Wang. He was 16 then, and not very well known, and took everyone by pleasant surprise.

He’s returned a couple times since and there he was again, Thursday night in Segerstrom Concert Hall, 21 and bearded and stylishly dressed now, but still with a friendly, glad-to-be-here stage deportment. His vehicle was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece he’s been playing for almost a decade already, he said.

It is, a famously spiky, muscular and percussive work, written for a virtuoso to do his zing. Tao hunkered down and went at it like a determined demon. The allegro tempos were taken at racing speed, even faster than usual. The phrases all snapped, held taut, wound up and then cracked like a whip.

Even the dreamy passages in the slow movement had a certain firmness, as if Tao (and by extension Prokofiev) were saying, “This isn’t Rachmaninoff anymore.” Throughout, the playing was clean and dry, pointed and hammered, but never flashy. This was Prokofiev’s Third dispatched through gritted teeth.

Carl St.Clair and the orchestra supported him acrobatically, but with too much sound at times, covering Tao’s minutia. Nevertheless, it was an exciting performance and in response to the ovation Tao offered an encore.

This was very likely the first time that the ultra-thorny music of Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was played in Segerstrom Concert Hall. Tao took a chance with “Caténaires,” written by Carter in his late 90s and which sounds like a blistering atonal jazz solo on steroids. But he played it with such aggression and exactitude and rapidity that he put it across and looked pleased at the applause.

He prefaced the “Eroica” with a talk about it, some seven minutes long by this reviewer’s watch and a few too many by his lights. 

Read the rest of the review here