Tao finds the Tao of piano works in wide-ranging Boston debut

December 2, 2021 at 12:10 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Conrad Tao performed Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

For pianist Conrad Tao, virtuosic technique always serves a deeper musical purpose. The former child prodigy has tackled some of the most difficult works in the repertoire, ranging from Stravinsky, Beethoven, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff to his own bravura compositions. Yet Tao is foremost a musician’s pianist, who displays maturity and sensitivity beyond his youthful age.

That was the effect of his Boston debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall. Presented by the Celebrity Series, Tao’s recital of John Adams, Jason Eckardt, Schumann, Bach, and Beethoven reflected every shade of his soulful musical personality.

Tao plays with remarkable precision and commanding presence. Subtle pauses between phrases and colorful tone recall the nuances and dynamism of Artur Schnabel and Martha Argerich. Yet there is a balance between power and delicacy that is all the pianist’s own.

The pianist’s playing proved most striking in his own Keyed In, a work co-commissioned by the Celebrity Series and heard in its New England premiere. Tao calls the twelve-minute score “a love letter to the piano.” Built from the simplest gestures, the work showcases the instrument at its most elemental. Repeated notes in the lower register, played at high volume, create ringing overtones, which provide the raw material for figures in the upper range. The music vigorously churns around open intervals and static harmonies, like a heavy metal record caught in a skip. The spectral work makes for mesmerizing listening, and the composer gave his music an assured reading.

Tao is equally capable of composing on the fly, and his improvisations complemented John Adams’s China Gates and Bach’s Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein.

After placing magnets on the piano strings, Tao offered an improvised preludio spectacle that surged from sweeping melodic fragments to a barrage of crushing dissonance. The running lines swelled and abated before flowing naturally into China Gates. Left on the strings, the magnets resulted in gentle percussive sounds that teased out the new dimensions from Adams’s rotating rhythms.

Bach’s choral prelude Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein offered subtle contrast. Tao’s free-flowing reading had the feel of an aria, the line rising, hovering around a trill, then falling away. His pearly tone brought gravity that carried over into a second improvisation. There, arching lines, adorned with ear-string dissonances, coursed through the intricate texture, making a thoughtful companion to Bach’s original.

Tao’s performance of Jason Eckardt’s Antennaria plantaginifolia, “Pussytoes,” was just as affecting. Written especially for Tao, this five-minute work is part of the composer’s Compendium of Catskill Native Botanicals, a series of miniatures for different instruments that draw inspiration from the natural world. Silence is as much an aspect of Eckardt’s writing as the notes themselves. Simple chords and chromatic flourishes, spread apart by long pauses, reveal a variety of colors and shapes. Tao performed the work with grace and refinement.

Turning to more traditional repertoire, Schumann’s Kinderszenen brought additional poetic touches. Playing with hushed intensity, Tao found emotional shades often unexplored in the tender “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” and mysterious “Kuriose Geschichte.” Even “Hasche-Mann,” with its rapid flourishes, seemed to glow at a distance. Greater tension emerged in the exuberant “Wichtige Begebenheit” and “Träumerei” took on the gentleness of a fond memory.

Tao offered a reading of Beethoven’s late Piano Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110, that proved revelatory.

He treated the opening movement with finesse while a gradually increasing weight in the movement’s transitions brought depth and grandeur. The Scherzo went with energetic power and Tao’s lingering tempo in the finale allowed the melody to soar. The slowly unfolding fugue provided a fervent and satisfying conclusion.

Tao offered Fred Hersch’s Pastorale (Dedicated to Robert Schumann) as an encore. The music, played in honor of World AIDS Day, offered solace for our plague-filled times.

A stream of Conrad Tao’s concert will be available until December 7. 

The Celebrity Series will present bass-baritone Dashon Burton in songs by John Jacob Niles, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Paul Bowles, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, Kurt Weill, and others 8 p.m. January 19 at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org

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