“Tao played, brilliantly, in sock feet. If that’s what it takes to achieve his combination of crystalline tone and long legato lines that never allowed the musical arc to waver, piano teachers should take note. His encore, an Elliott Carter piece called “Caténaires,” jumped out of the concert’s frame in spiky splendor to show us what a uniquely American musical voice sounds like.”
“Tao tore up the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 by Prokofiev […] The audience was immediately struck by the pianist’s ferocious power and incredible facility. Tao often played the fiendishly difficult passages like a man possessed. To be sure, there were moments of incredible lyricism, but the takeaway was Tao’s flying fingers and his flamboyant style. He was as much fun to watch as to hear.
[…] ‘The world is very different now’ displayed a multitude of influences – from the blocks of sound pioneered by Ligeti and Penderecki to ethereal vibraphone sounds created by bowing one note and full-scale assault by four percussionists. There were also dreamy passages that came in waves as the orchestral sound peaked and receded. Add some bugle calls and a haunting alto saxophone beautifully played by Eileen Young, and you begin to get a sense of this sometimes languid, sometimes sinister, intense and fragmented composition.”
“In the crypt, the sheer volume of Mr. Tao’s sound during frenzied climaxes was near-deafening, yet exhilarating.”
“In between the Rzewski pieces, Mr. Tao played Copland’s 1941 Piano Sonata, which I’ve never thought of as expressing American rage — especially the fleet second movement, which darts around like some blend of American swing and atonal pointillist writing. Leonard Bernstein captures that quality vividly in a 1947 recording I love. It was fascinating, though, to hear Mr. Tao draw out every dissonance-statured, vehement element of the sonata while also bringing affecting tranquillity to the pensive conclusion of the last movement.”
“Tao literally took our breath away… He made [‘Rhapsody in Blue’] come to brilliant life with an energetic, bouncing-off-his-piano-bench performance that felt almost improvised. He slowed down for the more sobering passages, but you could sense this energy surging from his fingertips waiting to let loose.
You’d think his encore would be something along the lines of Gershwin, but Tao, who won a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant at the tender age of 17 back in 2012, pulled out a piece by American icon Elliott Carter. It was something the late composer — he died in 2012 a month shy of his 104th birthday — had penned at age 97, but Tao made it sound like it came from a much younger hand.”
“While American orchestras these days have acquired the healthy habit of throwing a contemporary work into every other concert or so, Tao proved that balancing a substantial body of new, groundbreaking music with one of the more demanding works from the canon (in this case, Beethoven’s Sonata No 31 in A-flat, Opus 110) can create a fascinating, and, judging by audience response, crowd-pleasing program. Orchestras, artists, and presenters restrained by the concept that audiences have to hear something from the classical hit parade on every concert, and that every new work has to be balanced by a warhorse (which Opus 110 is definitely not), should take notice of Tao’s very successful strategy.”
“Rzewski’s part of the work was noisy and random, never staying in one place too long and never giving any hint of its source (Tao played a recording of a portion of the song to set up the piece). But Tao’s response to the tune was highly accessible and engaging. It reworked and revealed the song without directly quoting it. And the crowd that filled the cozy venue did not hide its approval (one of the fun things about these Live Oak performances is that the audiences hoot and holler when they like something).”
“Instead of delivering Liszt’s usual keyboard bombast, the piece was sweet, gentle and lullabylike. It made a revealing finish to a clever union of works that showcased Tao’s ability to handle the past as well as he does the present.”
“After a brief intermission, the 22-year-old Illinois native closed his concert with a gorgeous rendering of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31. The opening moderato cantabile molto espressivo (“slightly singing and very expressive”) was exactly that, with Tao playing with great delicacy in one passage and with extreme playfulness in the next. A proud and strident middle movement segued into a closing section that began dreamily, then stormed into a dazzling finish that really allowed Tao to show off.”
“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.”