Everyone, at one time or other, has fantasized about what it would be like to be a prodigy. The upside of being one is self-evident. However, the downside is not.
Tales of prodigies who achieved fame but were burned out before they reached adulthood are many.
For pianist and one-time prodigy Conrad Tao, who recently turned 18, the transition into adulthood is playing out at New York City's Columbia University, where he is a freshman.
Tao was born in Illinois to Chinese parents who had earned Ph.D.s at Princeton. As a toddler he took to the Baldwin upright piano after his sister practiced. At 18 months he was conjuring "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Several months later a piano teacher impressed upon Tao's parents that they had a prodigy on their hands.
When Tao was 9 the family moved to New York City, where he was enrolled in the pre-college program at Juilliard. By 12 he was signed with IMG Artists.
Notable debuts followed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and others. Tao also won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards.
On Saturday at the Sacramento Philharmonic's second concert of the 2012-13 season, Tao will perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 and the U.S. premiere of his one-movement work "Pángu." The orchestra will also perform Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor, "Scottish." Michael Morgan will conduct.
The Bee caught up with Tao via phone as he walked to class at Columbia. He talked about the challenges of being labeled a prodigy and about his role as a composer.
What are you studying at Columbia?
I'm the epitome of the undeclared major. I'm taking a great deal of sociology and anthropology classes as well as philosophy. I'm very interested in critical theory.
Studying non-music at Columbia, that must be a relief?
Yes, it's fantastic. It's expanding my horizons after practicing the violin and piano so many years. It's really essential to who I am now as a person.
I understand your parents would have preferred that you choose law or some other pursuit?
My parents would have been relieved if I had pursued something other than music, something more conventional. My parents don't have a background in music, so what I'm doing is very foreign to them.
How do you feel about the "prodigy" label?
I've never been in love with it. And it is not so much because of the definition of the word but with the connotations that have been attached to it.
Tell me about "Pángu."
Pángu is a Chinese creation myth. Pángu was a god. He was the one being of the universe, and legend has it that Pángu was sleeping for millennia in an egglike structure and when he awoke he broke out of the shell. For the course of a thousand years Pángu would stretch out the sky and the earth, and he would push up toward sky and down to earth. And once that was complete he passed away and the remains of his body became the earth.
How does the myth play out as a composition?
It's a celebratory work. My one truly explicit reference to the myth is the idea of him stretching out the heavens and the earth. That occurs in the middle section of the work, with slow, moving chords. The piece has whirling textures throughout. Melodic figures appear on either end of these whirling figures.
How important is composing to your music career?
It's achieved an integral role in my musical life. I can't imagine being a performer without being a composer. The two complement each other so perfectly. Being a composer, and a performer, this helps me understand a little bit more the relationship between performer-interpreter and original author. It goes the other way, as well.
Who is your compositional mentor?
My mentor has always been Chris Theofanidis. I've worked with him for years now. He's really the one that has guided me through my formative years.
What did you learn from him?
A great deal about texture and the importance of knowing what you want to communicate.
What composers resonate for you right now?
Right now I love Meredith Monk she's one of my biggest inspirations. I have always loved David Lang's music. I have a very sentimental connection with John Adams' music. His music was very important to me when I was growing up.