Tao enjoys career others would envy
BY STEVEN MARK / email@example.com
Oscar Wilde once said “youth is wasted on the young,” but Conrad Tao is making sure that his isn’t.
Tao can’t even take a legal drink in the U.S., but he’s been a professional pianist and violinist for eight years.
HAWAI’I SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
With pianist Conrad Tao and conductor Naotomo Otomo
» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
He’s recorded three CDs, and composed and performed innovative orchestral works, compiling a slew of grants, awards and rave press reviews along the way — including a listing as the only classical musician mentioned as one of Forbes’ 30 “Youngest Stars in the Music Business” under age 30.
Tao has also curated and produced a three-day festival devoted to new music, and he’s pursued degrees at Juilliard and Columbia University, though he’s taking a year off from school to devote to music.
Life can be a blur for the 20-year-old Tao, who performs the Grieg Piano Concerto on Sunday in the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of its sophomore season, as a consequence.
“I have to consult my own website sometimes to know where I’m going next,” he said with a laugh.
TAO HAS a self-awareness that can be disconcerting coming from someone so young. Speaking by phone about his career, he’s careful talking about “when I was young” because “I know that can sound really obnoxious.”
But he sounds like an old pro when he attributes his artistic drive to both “an artistic and intellectual restlessness,” and “the fear that I might lose some of that curiosity.”
“A lot of the time I find myself taking on lots of things because I feel an urge to or a need to,” he said. “Part of that I attribute to who I am and how my brain works and how I developed, but part of that I attribute to just being young. … You could make a pretty solid argument that I have my fingers in too many pies or that I have my hands too full sometimes, but that’s where I’m at, at the moment.”
Sometimes that means that even his website can’t tell him where he’s at or where he will be. Tao has become particularly adept at substitute gigs, being called on a half-dozen times or more to replace ailing artists. It seems to have worked out well, because he usually gets invited back.
“I feel like there’s a risk of developing a reputation for that,” he said. “But I will say I often have a lot of fun. … I don’t even know if orchestras go into a concert with too many expectations, but I do feel that with cancellations, there’s a bit of a heightened air around the entire affair. There’s definitely something interesting and fun about that.”
AT AGE 12 Tao signed his first professional contract, having already been performing concertos for four years. Those early years were primarily motived by fun, he said. “It was just having a relationship with music that was purely pleasurable,” he said, “and I think that’s how it should have been for me when I was younger, because at the end of the day, it should be treated as play.
“However, as I got older, around the age of 15 or 16, I started thinking I also want to have some relationship with my work that is about asking questions or exploring questions.”
His performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto, a staple of the concerto repertoire, is a good example of how he approaches his craft. Tao has not performed it for almost two years, so he’s happy to re-examine his approach to the work.
“It’s incredibly melodically memorable, across all three movements,” he said. “It’s a very immediate piece. It’s a piece that really grabs you with that material, and so in terms of my interpretation, I want to present it in a way that is very immediate. It’s very presentational, so I’m thinking a lot about what that means in terms of how I phrase things and how I structure the piece.”
“And then there’s the last movement, which draws on the Norse folkloric tradition. That’s always something worth mulling over, thinking about the best way to do that in a compelling and interesting manner.
“Probably my favorite movement in the whole piece is the second movement, which is such a gem, it’s so beautiful. And it always shocks me by how short it is, how brief it is. Having a movement end with you wanting more is not always something you associate with Romantic music.”
CONDUCTOR Naotomo Otomo, who two weeks ago led the orchestra in a breakneck rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, has stayed on for this concert, programming Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”
The five-movement “Episode in the Life of an Artist” is a musical expression of the composer’s mad crush on the woman who would eventually become his wife, an actress who rejected his advances at the time. With references to drug-induced reveries to drug-induced tantrums, few artistic works, of any medium and of any era, have depicted raging hormones as powerfully as this classic. (The marriage didn’t last.)
The symphony is also preparing for a free concert at 5 p.m. Saturday at Kailua District Park Pavilion. Conductor Ann Krinitsky, who performed with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and with other local music organizations, leads a program of Bernstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Paganini, Tchaikovsky and John Williams.
In addition, the symphony has announced that it will open its third Masterworks season Sept. 13 and 14, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of Blaisdell Concert Hall, then known as the Honolulu International Center. The symphony will perform half of the program featured that opening night, Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture,” and selections from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said HSO executive director Jonathan Parrish.
Parrish said the season will consist of 12 programs, like this season. Though he could not release all expected guest artists and conductors, he said HSO artistic director JoAnn Falletta will conduct two programs and that Sir Neville Marriner — one of the giants of conducting and founder of the famed Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra — will be a visiting guest.