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Conrad Tao

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Conrad Tao press reviews

Music review: Rumors are true about Conrad Tao
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It hasn't always been easy to credit some of the claims made on behalf of Conrad Tao since he appeared in musical circles as a child prodigy. A piano virtuoso and a serious composer, with a sideline as a violinist? And all before his age hit double digits?

Well, what do you know: It's all true.

Most of it, anyway - we still have to take the violin thing on faith. But after witnessing the 14-year-old musician's remarkable piano recital in Berkeley's Hertz Hall on Sunday afternoon, presented by Cal Performances, I see no reason to doubt any aspect of his story.

This is talent we can believe in, my friends.

Tao's skills as a keyboard artist would be impressive enough just on their own, and his musicianship only grew more striking as the afternoon went on. His technique seems to have no fault or flaw, and for the most part - aside from one worryingly ill-judged performance early on - he employs that dexterity in the service of a deep and evocative interpretive sensibility.

But to witness a young artist take the stage not just as a performer, but as a composer too - that was a whole different level of astonishment. As part of his recital program, Tao gave the U.S. premiere of his "Fantasy-Sonata," a 16-minute piano extravaganza that seemed tailor-made for his brand of explosive virtuosity.

You couldn't say this was genre-busting or powerfully innovative material, but then again, that wasn't the achievement of the young Mozart or Mendelssohn either. Tao writes solidly in the tradition of the post-Lisztian piano showpiece, and he does it with abundant flair and imagination.

The four movements of the piece tumble forth in a way that supports its hybrid title, suggesting both a free flow of ideas and an overarching structural framework. There are melodies for the ear to grab onto - especially in the slow movement, set against rippling left-hand accompaniment - and Tao varies and subverts them with glee; the intermezzo, with its spidery octave figures, is a little gem of sardonic wit.

But he also makes room for plenty of keyboard fireworks, culminating in a volcanic finale that sends the pianist scurrying around the instrument at top speed and volume. If anything, the overabundance of great material here is the one sign of the composer's inexperience.

Tao's piece was balanced after intermission by John Corigliano's "Etude Fantasy," a five-movement suite in a similar vein. Corigliano's technical studies include a powerful opening salvo for left hand alone, a fierce collection of thirds and fifths and a gorgeous final burst of melodic lyricism.

Tao braved all of these challenges, and more, without flinching, delivering a confident and often superbly balanced account of the music. But the Romantic repertoire that concluded the afternoon - including works by Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Liszt - was, if anything, even more stunning.

It was a relief, too, because Tao opened his recital with a bizarrely overstated rendition of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, a clattery assemblage of unmodulated fortissimos and clangorous (though precise) passagework. It left a first impression of a pianist trying way too hard.

So Tao's beautifully restrained and balanced playing at the end of the afternoon sounded like pure balm. In two of Rachmaninoff's "Six Moments Musicaux," Op. 15, he found a sublime middle path between vigor and reflectiveness.

And Chopin's "Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante" provided the perfect vehicle for his effortless keyboard skills, eliciting a performance marked by rhythmic clarity, tonal sweetness and light, silvery ornamentation. Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" No. 11 was a superb encore.

It would be silly to advise keeping an eye out for Conrad Tao, or to suggest that this young man is going places. He's already there, and he's only going to get better.