Poised on the cusp of what appears to be a brilliant musical career, Conrad Tao has been called “prodigiously talented” and “a promising star rising above the horizon.” While some might dismiss such praise as hyperbole, Tao's accomplishments have earned him the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and a Presidential Scholar in the Arts award.
What makes such achievements more surprising still is that Tao just celebrated his 18th birthday in June. One of the toughest challenges emerging concert artists face is not just learning new repertoire, but committing difficult and often lengthy works to memory. Any pianist worth his salt should have a resume that includes at least two dozen concertos.
This week, Tao will add another piece to his already wide-ranging list of repertoire, Ernst von Dohnanyi's “Variations on a Nursery Tune.” He'll be the featured guest artist when the Oklahoma City Philharmonic opens its 2012-13 classics series.
Tao will also perform Liszt's “Totentanz” (“Dance of the Dead”) on this season opener. In addition to those featured works, Joel Levine has programmed “Autumn” from Glazunov's ballet “The Seasons” and Elgar's “Enigma Variations.”
“I find ‘Totentanz' to be lovely and ironic,” Tao said recently. “A lot of the time you get the sense of maniacal glee that Liszt created by constructing and deconstructing the sacred Dies Irae. It's wonderfully blasphemous.”
“Variations on a Nursery Tune,” in contrast, carries the curious subtitle “For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.” It's a work that alternates between imposing orchestral statements and impish joy.
“It's hysterically funny and beautifully constructed,” Tao said. “Dohnanyi's approach is certainly irreverent but he also includes very deliberate homages to (Johannes) Brahms, (Johann) Strauss and (Paul) Dukas.
“A lot of it is very grandiose and unconsciously over the top. The challenge comes in making it a patchwork affair in the best way possible. For lack of a more nuanced way of putting it, it's about gluing the whole thing together.”
In addition to his demanding concert schedule, Tao is a full-time student who divides his time between Columbia University and The Juilliard School. He's also an accomplished violinist — he once played Mendelssohn's “Violin Concerto in E Minor” and the “Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor” on the same concert.
“I really appreciate the fact that (the Columbia/Juilliard) joint program encourages people to keep their minds very broad and open,” Tao said. “It would be easy to push yourself into a corner but music is intrinsically related to so many different aspects of life. Some of the most inspired moments don't always come in the practice room.”
If you're thinking Tao is stretched pretty thin, he's also an accomplished composer. He's won the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award for eight consecutive years and has been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to write an orchestral work in memory of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.
“Piano and composition coexist very peacefully and complement each other,” Tao remarked. “I can't imagine doing one with out having the understanding of the other. As a performer, I have a completely different perspective of how interpretation works because I understand it through the context of composing.
“As a violinist and a pianist, I've learned a lot about the orchestra and the dynamics between soloist and orchestra. I know I have a better understanding of what the orchestra wants and where the partnership sometimes comes up short or is not completely satisfying. I have a respect for orchestral musicians.”
While every child prodigy must deal with the challenges of making the transition to adult concert artist, few 18-year old musicians have enjoyed the good fortune of being in such high demand by orchestras throughout the world.
“Every day, I get to do something that I love very much,” Tao said. “I don't see a problem with burnout because music is truly enjoyable. It's one of the most exciting ways to express yourself. It gives me life.”