“For the last thirty or more years, my benchmark for this piece has been Earl Wild with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. I have a new benchmark now. Tao has all the brilliant technique that Wild famously displayed, but (a composer as well as a pianist) Tao displays more thought in his interpretation. He bent the rhythms at times, showing his mastery of jazz style without disturbing his rapport with the accompanying orchestra. He found connections and bridges that I had been unaware of, observed pauses that emphasized the importance of silence in the midst of music, and generally convinced the audience that this was a performance to remember.”
“The performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor gave a clear indication that Tao is seeking his own path, away from orthodoxy. He made an explosive entry, but gave a dark, melancholic reading of the wistful theme. With clear, articulate lines, Robert Schumann’s passionate ardor towards Clara was expressed with determination, through deliberate tempos. Rather than letting the music be overly sentimental, rendering it a torrent of rage, Tao illustrated its volatile…personality with an unusual level of clarity and dryness. It almost felt as if the music gave a third-person account of the composer, rather than the music being by Schumann himself. Tao’s fresh perspective laid strong emphasis on the music’s architecture.”
“On Sunday, Conrad Tao played an impressive double-header featuring the Schumann Concerto and Beethoven’s Emperor. He wowed not only with his prowess at the keyboard, but with his preternatural sang-froid: Tao spent over an hour trapped in a hotel elevator and arrived at the hall with just minutes to spare.
If the ordeal had any impact on his playing, you couldn’t tell from the hall. The slightly built, outrageously gifted 22-year-old American is mostly known for his intrepid, fiery performances of 20th- and 21st-century music, including his own compositions, and he brought an original, modernist sensibility to these two monuments of Romantic piano literature.
Tao has a trick of subtly emphasizing bass lines and syncopations in a way that sounds fresh yet organic, never forced or overblown. He has huge technique and facility, but it’s his relaxed, almost jazzy approach to the music that stood out. The Schumann was all restless energy and shifting, interior light. The Beethoven had a lively, prancing magnificence, vivid as a film. An encore of Caténaires, Elliott Carter’s bristling Iron Throne of a toccata, had both meticulous control and lethal attack.”
“The concert’s most memorable moment occurred when a youthful guest artist performed music written by a 97-year-old…the audience that filled the Schermerhorn on Oct. 7 seemed genuinely dazzled by Carter’s score. As Tao’s fleet fingers raced through Caténaires, a dissonant perpetual-motion piece that Carter composed at age 97, the audience listened with breathless excitement. In the end, they roared their approval, giving Tao a sustained ovation. I’ve reviewed concerts for decades, and this was the first time I heard Carter’s fiendishly difficult, cerebral music played as an encore. Hopefully it won’t be the last.
[…] In his performance, Tao emphasized the [Grieg] concerto’s showy side, playing with blistering speed while indulging in an orgy of octaves. Yet there was more to Tao’s playing than mere razzle-dazzle. He was an imaginative tonal colorist who used the piano’s sustain pedal to create a wash of prismatic overtones. And he made the finale his own, turning the movement’s familiar Norwegian rhythm into an off-kilter dance. The NSO’s associate conductor, Vinay Parameswaran, provided Tao with colorful, flexible accompaniment.”
“Tao…surpassed reputation. He delivered an intense, involved, passion-inspired performance that was one of the most thrilling to be heard on stage with this symphony. His was a very physical delivery. Tao seemed to become one with the instrument and the score; he moved about constantly on the piano bench, often, in moments of heightened emphasis rising up from the bench, his feet frequently moving about and not strictly on the pedals. As he molded the lush lines of the piece, he seemed transfixed, his eyes closed, his head tossed backward in dream-like fashion.
Tao was the master of the Rachmaninoff and its many moods, offering inspired lyricism and ponderous power. As for technique, his defined virtuoso in a brilliant display of total musicianship and artistry. Even though the Rachmaninoff was a major workout, Tao generously responded to his thunderous and spontaneous applause with an encore of Elliot Carter’s “Catenaires,” a devilishly difficult work. The chordless work is a nonstop rapid fire delivery of notes that bounce all over the keyboard in what might seem haphazard fashion, offering colorful and often dissonant combinations of sound, all carried off to perfection.”
“[Tao] displayed a remarkable affinity for Beethoven at Berkeley, with ever-interesting nuances of interpretation combined with a surprising display of power considering his relatively lightweight frame.
All during his magnificent rendition of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, Tao’s arms were straightjacketed by a tight-fitting suit. He had to flail his arms out vigorously behind him. Had they gone up instead, ripping sounds would have supplemented the music.
Following patrons’ tumultuous response to the concerto, Tao returned, now coatless, for two minutes of encore virtuosity with a combination of speed, difficulty, and perfection of execution that was utterly jawdropping: Elliot Carter’s 2006 ‘Caténaires.’”
“Conrad Tao was back. Pacific Symphony audiences were introduced to the pianist (and composer) back in 2011, when he substituted for an indisposed Yuja Wang. He was 16 then, and not very well known, and took everyone by pleasant surprise.
He’s returned a couple times since and there he was again, Thursday night in Segerstrom Concert Hall, 21 and bearded and stylishly dressed now, but still with a friendly, glad-to-be-here stage deportment. His vehicle was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece he’s been playing for almost a decade already, he said.
It is a famously spiky, muscular and percussive work, written for a virtuoso to do his zing. Tao hunkered down and went at it like a determined demon. The allegro tempos were taken at racing speed, even faster than usual. The phrases all snapped, held taut, wound up and then cracked like a whip.
Even the dreamy passages in the slow movement had a certain firmness, as if Tao (and by extension Prokofiev) were saying, “This isn’t Rachmaninoff anymore.” Throughout, the playing was clean and dry, pointed and hammered, but never flashy. This was Prokofiev’s Third dispatched through gritted teeth. It was an exciting performance and in response to the ovation Tao offered an encore.
This was very likely the first time that the ultra-thorny music of Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was played in Segerstrom Concert Hall. Tao took a chance with “Caténaires,” written by Carter in his late 90s and which sounds like a blistering atonal jazz solo on steroids. But he played it with such aggression and exactitude and rapidity that he put it across and looked pleased at the applause.”
– Tim Mangan, Orange County Register (December 2015)
“Bounding back onstage after intermission, Tao brought vast kinetic energy as well as his keen structural insights as a composer to his masterful playing of Mussorgsky’s Pictures. This is a suite that goads many pianists into self-indulgent flights of pianism, but Conrad Tao was a model of control and restraint. His brush strokes were vivid but not ostentatious. Humorous scenes sparkled. The hut of Baba Yaga was drawn with bizarre but not horrific colors, and no pounding or ringing hammers besmirched the grandeur of the Great Gate of Kiev. Toward the end of his uncannily flawless performance, Tao prominently missed a single left hand octave, as if to prove he was human after all.
After being called back several times, Conrad Tao noted that this had been a “stressful” program, but that he would give the crowd a little something extra. That turned out to be the last movement of Prokofiev’s seventh sonata, a lengthy, fierce toccata that only a 21-year-old would think of dashing off at that point. It was spectacular.”
“I don’t think that familiarity is all that sustainable and it’s also, from a selfish perspective, just not that interesting to me,” he said. Tao hopes to create a more welcoming atmosphere than fostered by formal concerts, saying he feels satisfied when concert-goers feel comfortable coming up to him and saying what they did not like. “Audiences do enjoy feeling challenged, as long as you are not being pedantic or patronizing,” he said.
Tao performs “Pictures at an Exhibition” with an emotional intensity so palpable that it comes off physically, with the final movement’s triumphant chords shaking both the pianist and crowd around him in the crypt.“