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Berkeley Symphony With Pianist Conrad Tao Leaves the Audience Searching for Their Socks

12.11.17
Conrad Tao
San Francisco Classical Voice

The pianist Conrad Tao first knocked socks off Berkeley audiences several years ago, when he was still a child prodigy. Now at the ripe age of 23, Tao did the same on Thursday by performing not one but two astonishingly difficult pieces at Zellerbach Hall with the Berkeley Symphony. New works by Rene Orth and Anna Clyne completed the program, which was led by a dynamo guest conductor, Gemma New.
Clocking in at under five minutes, Chasing Light (2015) was a dense — and intense — fire-starter. Orth explained she wrote this orchestral work when she was still a student at Curtis and had a lot going on, largely because she was simultaneously finishing her chamber opera, Empty the House. She represented that sense of being swamped in Chasing Light largely via fervent strings and inexorable percussion. The title refers to the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” That said, the ending surprised — it reminded me of that heavy feeling of waking up after a sleepless night. The piece captured not only the infinite energy of youth but also ageless, relentless anxiety.
The drama continued in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This piece is interesting partly because it frequently demands awe-inspiring, overpowering virtuosity, just as knocking down a wall requires a sledgehammer. At others, though, it calls for restraint, like in the first variation, where Tao delicately highlighted important notes as though he were a teacher patiently instructing his audience in what to listen for. A risk-taker with staggering technique but also a wide emotional range, Tao radiantly ran Rachmaninoff’s gamut. An innate soloist, he commanded attention even when blending into the orchestral palette or thoughtfully playing the accompaniment, like in a variation that featured the oboe.
Without seeming deliberately histrionic, Tao was also a delight to watch. His assured, resolute musical ideas voraciously reverberate beyond his fingers and through his entire body. With his commanding performance of Rachmaninoff’s thrilling audience-pleaser, Tao earned an immediate standing ovation. Read the rest of the review here