It’s a Great Time to Be Conrad Tao

Conrad Tao
San Francisco Classical Voice

It’s not every musician who makes The New York Times Best Classical Music Performances’ list two years in a row (2017, 2018) — and then earns a slot on the paper’s 2018 Best Dance list, as well. But that’s precisely what pianist/composer Conrad Tao has done. At a mere 24 years old, this Illinois-born phenom has been dazzling audiences since his first recital at age 4. His hefty resume also boasts performances with orchestras around the world, including the New York Philharmonic, the Swedish Radio Symphony, and the Baltimore Symphony, to name a few.
Along the way, Tao has also racked up fistfuls of awards, among them a 2012 prestigious Avery Fisher Grant and eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. In addition, in 2011 he was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and, in that same year, at age 17, Tao was the only classical artist named by Forbes magazine as one of “30 Under 30” in the music industry.
As a composer, Tao has been called “ferociously talented” by Time Out New York, with compositions commissioned by, among others, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Pacific Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. The millennial’s recital and chamber music schedule is packed, as well, with a 2017 solo debut at Lincoln Center and performances this past January with violinist Stefan Jackiw in Vancouver, Canada, and at the 92nd Street Y. This year continues to be a banner one for the nonstop Tao, who bowed with L.A. Opera in David Lang’s the loser in February and performed Schubert and Chopin with the Pacific Symphony in March.
Indeed, no stranger to Southern California, Tao returns to the City of Angels May 18, when he makes his first appearance with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Part of the series, “Dudamel and Beethoven’s Piano Concertos,” the program features Tao performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. I spoke by phone with the polymath on a range of subjects, including his approach to Beethoven, how collaborations open avenues of communication, and his take on classical music as a thriving art form.
You’re filling in for Lang Lang in L.A. on the May 18 concert. What are your thoughts on performing Beethoven’s first piano concerto and how do you keep the work fresh?
It’s not hard to keep Beethoven fresh, really. It’s good music that allows you to exist as yourself within it. I’ve been looking lately at the holographic manuscripts of the piece, which are freely available on IMSLP [International Music Score Library Project]. There are fabulous resources online for Beethoven scores and it’s an incredible thing to be able to do. I keep most of my scores on my iPad and looking at that manuscript from 1796 or so, what’s really lovely about that — and there are obvious things that are also exciting — is being able to see what could have been, what he crosses out, the way he revises. So much is scribbled out that you feel like you could almost track Beethoven’s thought process. Of course, that’s a little bit of an illusion, but that’s why making music is exciting. It’s not really possible, when playing music centuries old, to claim a fixed authority. The point of doing your research isn’t being able to say this is how it is. You don’t do the research to get to a perfect place, but to open up new questioning areas. That’s how you keep anything fresh.
That’s also what I would define as good music — music that allows you to find inquisitive new spaces, without having to be willful about it. It’s just not that difficult [because] all of it’s there in a way. Beethoven is so great; it’s a limitless field of possibility. Beethoven is always fresh to me, and I’m always trying to find out what he’s experimenting with in the piece — what are the choices he’s making, the markings he’s using. It’s fresh music because it was written in a spirit of experimentation, curiosity, and personal expression. Read the full review here