Conrad Tao Is Reshaping the Image of the Piano Virtuoso for the 21st Century

Conrad Tao

His name hasn’t changed, but mentally splicing the 23-year-old Conrad Tao with the child prodigy who first came before the general public more than a decade ago is likely to make you do a double take.

In 2004, Tao appeared for the first time on the long-running NPR series From the Top, which spotlights young musicians. Could this ten-year-old, who was joined by a fellow prodigy to play his own Sonata for Two Pianos, really be the same person who conceived the electro-acoustic concerto An Adjustment for piano and iPad (commissioned by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in 2015)? The latter combines Tao’s keyboard artistry with an electronic soundscape—all interwoven into exchanges with the orchestra. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Peter Dobrin praised this multilayered work, which encompasses the composer’s experiences with depression, for integrating “in the most imaginative way the current style of spiritual post-Romanticism and ’90s techno club music.”

A pianist and composer whose default setting is to seek out innovation, Tao has gotten used to reactions of surprise by those previously unaware of his precocious background. “I’ve discovered that a lot of people don’t know what my age is, especially older colleagues” says Tao, a Steinway Artist since 2013. “That’s been a nice development. When I was sixteen or seventeen, all I wanted to do was shed that label and get rid of the p–word.”

In Das Wunderkind (1903), one of his early stories, Thomas Mann memorably captured the subtly oppressive constraints that accompany the prodigy phenomenon — the performance is as much about the observers as the observed. The story, in which Mann dramatizes a piano recital by his eight-year-old child protagonist, Bibi Saccellaphylaccas, shows how prodigies can become screens onto which we project our own often comically divergent preoccupations. Before he dives into the “inviting ocean” of his music, Bibi theatrically acknowledges his audience: “A breathless stillness reigned in the room—the tense moment before the first note came….”
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