Reviews: Conrad Tao’s Exhilarating Boston Celebrity Series Solo Debut
“Keyed In,” an original work co-commissioned by Celebrity Series, was written from a place of pure curiosity about the capabilities of the piano to create illusory melodies out of overtones. The pianist’s take on Robert Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (”Scenes from Childhood”) explored the depths of nostalgia in the simple scores, conjuring a sweet tableau before a little slowdown or a shift in dynamics or attitude turned the scene into a faded photograph. “Träumerei” (”Dreaming”), one of Schumann’s most beloved and well-traveled melodies, falls right in the middle of the 13 scenes, and Tao treated it as a bittersweet intermission, closing the theoretical photo album to reveal the wistful adult looking into the past. (By that time, some of the audience was probably feeling the same way as well — the scenes are piano-lesson staples for intermediate to advanced students, and I probably wasn’t the only one whose ears pricked up at hearing a song long forgotten.)”
The Boston Globe
“Tao is foremost a musician’s pianist, who displays maturity and sensitivity beyond his youthful age. That was the effect of his Boston debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall. Presented by the Celebrity Series, Tao’s recital of John Adams, Jason Eckardt, Schumann, Bach, and Beethoven reflected every shade of his soulful musical personality. Tao plays with remarkable precision and commanding presence. Subtle pauses between phrases and colorful tone recall the nuances and dynamism of Artur Schnabel and Martha Argerich. Yet there is a balance between power and delicacy that is all the pianist’s own.
Tao calls the twelve-minute score [his own Keyed In] “a love letter to the piano.” Built from the simplest gestures, the work showcases the instrument at its most elemental. Repeated notes in the lower register, played at high volume, create ringing overtones, which provide the raw material for figures in the upper range. The music vigorously churns around open intervals and static harmonies, like a heavy metal record caught in a skip. The spectral work makes for mesmerizing listening, and the composer gave his music an assured reading.”
Turning to more traditional repertoire, Schumann’s Kinderszenen brought additional poetic touches. Playing with hushed intensity, Tao found emotional shades often unexplored in the tender “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” and mysterious “Kuriose Geschichte.” Even “Hasche-Mann,” with its rapid flourishes, seemed to glow at a distance. Greater tension emerged in the exuberant “Wichtige Begebenheit” and “Träumerei” took on the gentleness of a fond memory.”
Boston Classical Review
“Beethoven lays down a gauntlet of challenges for the pianist, from the opening ornamentation to closing arpeggiated accompaniment. Tao met them all in stride. He even added the occasional trill in his rhapsodical take on the second movement that accentuated Beethoven’s extraordinary use of contrast. But Tao sounded his best with the serpentine fugues in the last movement, attentively voicing each subject with a range of individual characters. Tao defined the fugue as a “churning through” of musical material, but there was little sense of any agitation here; instead, he effortlessly navigated to a cathartic reading of the chorale apotheosis.”
Boston Musical Intelligencer
“Playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 31 in A-flat, op. 110, Tao offered a performance that was at once eminently logical yet profoundly expressive. In the first movement, his playing — dreamy and almost improvisatory in tone — belied an exceptional understanding of the space, direction, sonority, and wonder that is at the heart of this music.
So, too the brief Scherzo, with its blistering central part.
In the finale, Tao teased out the gently pulsing figures of the nervously searching introduction and got the pair of winsome “sad songs” (so marked by the composer) to soar. But it was the fugues, flawlessly weighted and voiced, surging with unalloyed majesty and power, that crowned this reading. Indeed, the second one, which starts at a whisper and builds to a roar, was imbued with a special feeling of catharsis and release.”