By Peter Alexander
Conrad Tao conquered the audience last night, playing with the Boulder Philharmonic in Macky Auditorium.
The concert under music director Michael Butterman featured the highly talented young pianist as the soloist in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, which he seemed to navigate in comfort. Impressively, the multi-talented Tao also played piano in the orchestra for Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde and composed one of the pieces on the program.
The concert took its theme, “Creative Legends,” from Tao’s composition. Titled Pángu, it was inspired by a Chinese legend of creation, in which the god Pángu wakes up in an egg and creates the world we live in out of his own body.
Speaking before the performance, Tao said that he used a “cinematic palette” in composing the score. If so, it is cinematic in the best sense, using the orchestra to create a sense of color and motion. While not literally pictorial, the score suggests that something is happening throughout: the music is highly directive and leads to a powerful conclusion.
Tao also commented that when he finished, he realized that the style was “Bernstein adjacent.” This seems to imply an idiom that is symphonic yet inflected, as Bernstein’s music so often was, by American pop and jazz styles. It is a highly effective score that was realized with great energy by Butterman and the Boulder Phil.
Taking a cue from the subject of Pángu, Butterman filled out the first half of the concert with other works derived from stories about creation. Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus was given an energetic, clean and transparent reading. It was followed by the music depicting “Chaos,” the very opening movement of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. A rare visitor to the concert hall, this was a pleasure for any Haydn fans—such as myself— in the audience.
The least effective part of the program was Milhaud’s Création du monde. The performance was delicately balanced and carefully played, but lacked the raw energy that would better reveal the score’s origin in Milhaud’s visits to Harlem jazz clubs in the 1920s. It was nonetheless a welcome addition to the program, giving a glimpse into the impact of African-American music on France and French musicians in the early years of the 20th century. It is a colorful, original, and fun piece.
The real meat of the program came after intermission, with the Beethoven Concerto. Here the Philharmonic proved to be a good Beethoven orchestra, with a smooth, homogenous string sound and effective punch in the winds and the timpani. Butterman provided an attentive and supportive accompaniment to the solo part.
Tao played with a rambunctious energy appropriate to his 20 years, most notably in the spirited finale, but his interpretation was not without more modulated moments. He made good use of the modern piano’s wide range of dynamics, from the majestic chords and flourishes of the opening movement, to the delicate passages of the slow movement. His ability to project even the softest sounds into Macky’s large space was a valuable interpretive tool.
For an encore, Tao leaped centuries, styles, and all over the keyboard to play Elliott Carter’s Caténaires, a stunning and frenetic tour de force that ought to be impossible to memorize—and is nearly impossible to play. Once again Tao seemed to toss it off without breaking a sweat. I’m not sure everyone appreciated a non-tonal encore that was written in 2006, but I thought it was the perfect closer—a virtuosic “palette cleanser,” as Tao said, and also something completely unexpected. What more could you want from an encore?
Having conquered Beethoven, Elliott Carter, and the audience, Tao seemed completely unruffled as he stepped into the lobby to sign CDs and chat with his fans. Whether you were in Macky last night, heard the concert through Colorado Public Radio’s live broadcast, or are just reading this review, remember the name Conrad Tao: his impressive talent will take him far.