Conrad Tao Was Never Just Another Prodigy
Whipping between the establishment and the avant-garde, this pianist and composer is a rising star at 25.
By Joshua Barone
Conrad Tao tends to slip into celestial metaphors. During a recent interview, this musician — a veteran at just 25 — referred to his ideas about concert programming as “constellatory.” When he thought he was rambling, he cut himself off and apologized for “galaxy-braining.”
Here’s another one: He’s a rising star — both as a concert pianist, with a new album and a Carnegie Hall debut this fall, and as a composer, attracting commissions from the likes of the New York Philharmonic. He is also part of the first generation of artists to have been raised on the internet, which has informed his music and relationships, and offered a playground for his omnivorous taste and curiosity.
If the online world can seem at times overwhelming and scattered, so does Mr. Tao’s schedule: oscillating between the establishment and avant-garde; writing new pieces in between gigs; and using what little time he has left over for collaborations with like-minded contemporaries.
“I try to recognize how lucky I am,” said Mr. Tao, who has been playing professionally since an age when most children haven’t even begun to learn algebra. “I am pursuing all this partially because I have a modicum of security. For me that’s also what gives me a strong sense of responsibility that I pursue a more personal path. And I want to share it.”
He will share some of it on Nov. 20, when he makes his debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, in a program that includes contemporary music alongside classics by Bach, Rachmaninoff and Schumann.
“I love putting together a program,” he said. “I get to think like a composer while also performing like a pianist. In this, I’m playing with applause breaks more intentionally and experimenting with juxtapositions. Like when I put Bach and Elliott Carter together, I’m not suturing the gap between them, but maybe one can hear both a little differently.”
Mr. Tao talks a lot; his friend Charmaine Lee, a vocalist and improviser, described him as being “in perpetual interview mode.” He seems to always be scrutinizing, not only the world around him, but also his own ideas as they’re formed. Days after discussing the Carnegie program, he sent a long text message adding to his thoughts about the recital format and the audience’s role in it, how their listening — “to the totality of the concert space, the hiss of the ventilation system, the breath or lack thereof of an audience, phones and crinkles and the like” — can be “the site of music-making.”
It’s easy, given Mr. Tao’s rigorous attention to his programs and their possible readings, to take his latest album, “American Rage,” as a political statement about the present. But, he’s quick to point out, the selections began as a 2015 recital. “It’s not just a post-Trump thing,” he said, waving his hands as if to stop a moving train.
Mr. Tao, who had gone into the studio to record three Mozart sonatas, also laid down the tracks that became “American Rage”; he doesn’t know what will come of that planned Mozart album. What he ended up with is a program whose concerns are more historical than ripped-from-the-headlines. It opens and closes with pieces by Frederic Rzewski, the master of furiously political music, inspired by past examples of labor unrest; in between are Copland’s Piano Sonata and Julia Wolfe’s “Compassion.”
Mr. Tao’s playing shines in extremity, through the muscular chords of the Wolfe piece — her raw response to the Sept. 11 attacks — and the bitterness of the Rzewski selections. These works also bring out new darkness in Copland’s sonata, which Mr. Tao said he views as a work “of rage and reflection and resignation.”
“Which Side Are You On?” — a Rzewski piece based on a 1931 protest song — features an extended improvisation, which has become integral to Mr. Tao’s performance practice over the past few years. It’s a far cry from the standard repertory with which he began his career.
Mr. Tao grew up in the Midwest and the Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights, with a climate scientist for a mother and a telecommunications engineer for a father. Having begun to play professionally by the age of 11, he got a manager when he was 12, and toured with showpieces like Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.
“I think I’ve been in denial a little bit about how unusual my life is,” said Mr. Tao, who was also a violin prodigy. “It probably messed with me in ways that I’ve only begun to understand.”
This profile was written ahead of Conrad Tao’s Carnegie Hall recital debut. The New York Times praised the recital for both Tao’s virtuosity and exhilarating performance style. “Mr. Tao’s playing was steely and exhilarating…Rachmaninoff, represented here by his mercurial Étude-Tableau in A minor, held his own quite well with all these living composers, thanks to Mr. Tao’s subtle performance. Mr. Lang’s bittersweet “wed” provided a glistening, delicate contrast. Then Mr. Tao tore into Jason Eckardt’s “Echoes’ White Veil,” a ferocious 11-minute work, all frenzied eruptions of hellbent runs and leaping chords. It was an inspired idea to go without break into Schumann’s “Kreisleriana.” Mr. Tao carried this 19th-century classic, a fantastical 30-minute suite, into the 21st century, bringing out inner voices, pungent harmonies and obsessive rhythmic elements that many pianists gloss over.For an encore, Mr. Tao played an arrangement of the singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End,” dedicated to its composer, who died in September. While playing, Mr. Tao sang the lyrics in a soft, earthy voice. Not many virtuosos would attempt something so revealing.” Read the full review.