Musical precociousness can manifest itself in countless ways, from the gifted child who loves to boast about his accomplishments to those who channel their talents into more productive outcomes.
Conrad Tao clearly belongs to the latter group, a pianist of exceptional talent who made a spectacular debut on the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's 2012-13 season opener. In a lifetime of concertgoing, I've encountered many artists who use music to play the piano. Tao uses the piano to make music.
From the moment he took center stage, Tao gave the impression of barely being able to contain his excitement about the task that lay ahead. And while most artists give a nod to the conductor as a green light to proceed, Tao smiled and gave Joel Levine a thumb's up.
Tao wasted little time demonstrating his brilliant technique. Whether maneuvering through the musical complexities of Dohnanyi's “Variations on a Nursery Song” or dealing with the work's ever-shifting moods, Tao exuded a confidence far beyond his 18 years.
The collaboration between orchestra and soloist cast both camps in a flattering light, most evident in an attractive swagger to the work's waltz variation and a grand variation that culminated in a triumphant restatement of the familiar nursery tune.
One also had to be impressed with the remarkable clarity of Tao's playing. Each new phrase was meticulously prepared, his hands carefully poised to enter the work's forward motion. Tao would finish a phrase with a similar fluidity of motion.
The Dohnanyi can easily sound hackneyed — it is after all, a set of variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” — but Tao clearly understood the composer's sly sense of humor. He was in on the joke but kept his own amusement in check. The results were magical.
Tao turned next to Liszt's “Totentanz,” another set of variations, this time on the “Dies Irae,” the “Day of Wrath.” This is Liszt at his most gregarious: a big, splashy work that might be described as a pianist's version of a body builder flexing his brawny muscles.