Pianist Tao, 18, shows deep and mature artistry in Beethoven

By David Fleshler

Conrad Tao performed the first three Beethoven piano concertos Monday night with Symphony of the Americas at the Broward Center.

On a Saturday afternoon in 2005, a 10-year-old pianist named Conrad Tao performed at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, one of two child prodigies presented in the Miami International Piano Festival.

This week Tao has returned to the same stage to play all five Beethoven piano concertos, and judging from his performance of the first three Monday night with Symphony of the Americas, he has brilliantly fulfilled his early promise. The mastery he displayed was more than the predictable brilliance of the grown-up prodigy, it was a performance that brought out the nobility, the eloquence and the dramatic power of these works. He will play Beethoven’s 4th and 5th concertos Tuesday evening at the Broward Center.

At 18, Tao is already a veteran performer. He has appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Detroit Symphony and San Francisco Symphony and many other ensembles. Last year he recorded his first solo album, performing works of Debussy and Stravinsky for the EMI label. An award-winning composer, he was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to write a work commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. He is currently enrolled in a joint degree program at Juilliard and Columbia University

Playing three Beethoven concertos in a single concert is something of a stunt and probably not the ideal way for audiences to appreciate the composer’s work. But aside from shedding his jacket after the first two concertos, Tao showed no signs of running out of energy. The orchestra, under the baton of artistic director James Brooks-Bruzzese, gave a vigorous performance, with the taut ensemble sound that’s so important in Beethoven.

Tao’s command of the instrument was total, with no hint of struggle and virtually no audible mistakes in this virtuoso music composed by one of the virtuoso pianists of the era. He has a wonderful touch at the keyboard, playing quick passages with a control that never sounded stilted and an energy that never allowed them to lose shape.

He could be gruff and grim, as in the abrupt opening of the third concerto, and sweeping and grand, in the keyboard-spanning runs and arpeggios that came later. At various points in these concertos, the pianist plays rapid figures to accompany the melody in the orchestra, and Tao varied the colors and tone, articulate and biting in the second movement of the second concerto, smooth and fluent in the second movement of the third.

He played with great elegance in the smooth minor-key melodies of the first movement of the Concerto No. 3, with feeling for the long melodic line that looked forward to the suave melodies of the later 19th century composers for piano. You would expect young pianists to play brilliantly. Less predictable was the eloquence Tao brought to the slow movements, playing with just a hint of rubato – the slight acceleration or deceleration that happens around the beat.

Aside from a couple of passages in which he seemed in a hurry to get to the next phrase, he did these works full justice. He could play with hair-raising virtuosity. The first movement cadenza of the Piano Concerto No. 2 was a whirl of notes that carried with it tremendous power, with Tao nailing the notes with biting articulation, precision and intensity that made the virtuosity itself part of the drama.

Conrad Tao and Symphony of the Americas will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 4 and 5 8:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. browardcenter.org, 954-462-0222.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Pianist Tao, 18, shows deep and mature artistry in Beethoven”

  1. Posted Apr 16, 2013 at 1:21 am by Mark Heesen

    In my mind, if a pianist can play Liszt’s Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody with no trouble, he can play anything. Conrad has done just that, before he turned 18 . . . and it should still be on youtube.

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Tue Apr 16, 2013
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