Conrad Tao, a piano prodigy grown up, dazzles in Berkeley

Conrad Tao
San Francisco Gate

On Thursday, Dec. 7, the good folks at Lincoln Center tagged the 23-year-old piano virtuoso Conrad Tao as one of a group of upcoming musical artists worthy of recognition and support. That night, Tao came to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall and showed everyone why.

Tao was on the program with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Gemma New not once but twice — playing Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations on the first half and returning after intermission for Liszt’s equally extravagant showpiece “Totentanz.” Both performances confirmed everything we’ve been told about Tao’s keyboard brilliance.

It’s actually a comparatively old story. Tao has been a visible presence on the musical scene — as both a pianist and a composer — since he was a 10-year-old prodigy. A solo recital he gave in Berkeley at 14, under the auspices of Cal Performances, made it pretty clear that his was a massive and multidimensional talent.

And since then, he has only expanded on that gift, pursuing a wide range of old and new music. Thursday’s concert didn’t have too much to say about Tao’s versatility — aside from the encore, it traded in verity for thematic consistency — but it did demonstrate the depth of virtuosity and interpretive resourcefulness he brings to the table.

Naturally, it’s the virtuosity you notice first. Tao’s ability to get around a keyboard — with either nimble agility or pounding intensity as required — is something to marvel over. And both pieces, written by artists steeped in the 19th century tradition of the composer-pianist, are designed to show off those skills.

But Tao was never content simply to wow his listeners with rapid and impeccably executed scales and arpeggios, or to dazzle them into submission with ferocious chordal passages. Throughout both performances, he modulated his showmanship with graceful phrasing and elegant rhetoric.

The crystalline textures of the early variations in the Rachmaninoff, for example — an evocation of Paganini’s original piece that Rachmaninoff gradually fills in — found an echo in Tao’s pointed sonorities, blossoming into the luxurious lyricism of the famous 18th variation.
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