Music News & Reviews

Pianist Conrad Tao makes exuberant music his way

Conrad Tao has appeared worldwide as a pianist and composer.
Conrad Tao has appeared worldwide as a pianist and composer. Lauren Farmer

Conrad Tao officially is all grown up. After more than a decade in the concert spotlight, the piano wunderkind turned 21 this month.

“I don’t feel any different,” he said in a phone interview from his New York City home. “At this point, adulthood feels like constantly learning to negotiate. It’s not going to get any easier.

“When I was younger – and I know how that sounds – I thought it would get easier as I got older,” added Tao, who has been playing recitals since age 4. “I realize now that nobody has their (stuff) together, no matter their age. It’s the most comforting thing as well as the most depressing.”

Tao lets out a hardy laugh at this realization, like everything about him, wise and accomplished beyond his years. He has been wowing audiences as long as he can remember. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 13. He has soloed with the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and many more. The New York Times calls Tao a pianist with “probing intellect and open-hearted vision.”

Music in the Mountains audiences will get to hear Tao in two concerts at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. These will be Tao’s first appearances at the Grass Valley festival and his first visit to the Sierra foothills.

“I love going out of town and meeting musicians everywhere,” said Tao, who plays three to four concerts a month across country. “People anywhere need reminders that they’re not the center of the universe, that it’s about music – not them.”

For the July 1 concert in the fairgrounds’ Amaral Center, Tao will perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. It’s a perfect crowd-pleaser for a summer concert, he noted.

“I love the piece; it’s a bit of a behemoth,” he said with another laugh. “It’s a hoot and a half to play. I love how shamelessly big it is. I can embrace its expansiveness. I get to indulge my fantasies of being the center of attention. It’s great fun.”

While such playing may seem over the top, Tao doesn’t care.

“I hope I won’t be playing the same way when I’m in my 60s or 70s,” he said. “I play in a ‘young’ exuberant fashion. I like being able to use that. I love to embrace my impetuousness. This concerto is perfect for that. Hopefully, it will be very exuberant.

“I’m at the point of my life where I find aggressive good taste really boring,” he added. “I’m a performer through and through.”

For the July 1 concert, Constantine Kitsopoulos conducts the Festival Orchestra, made up of musicians from throughout Northern California. Also on the program are Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony and Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco Overture.”

On July 2, Tao will have the stage to himself as he plays an eclectic recital of Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, an etude by Sergei Rachmaninoff and works by four modern composers: David Lang, Elliot Carter, Julia Wolfe and himself.

Tao has been a prolific composer since third grade. At age 10, he won his first of eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards.

“I do a lot of composing,” said Tao, who is working on a joint degree from Columbia University and Juilliard with an emphasis on composition. “Deadlines; that’s what’s really scary for me, trying to get something finished. It’s a process; you learn as you go.”

This year, he’s serving as artist in residence with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; he’ll write an original composition as well as perform concerts and lead master classes. This assignment follows his 2013 Dallas commission, “The World Is Very Different Now,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death.

He plays and listens to work of contemporary composers as well as old masters.

“I love playing everything,” he said. “My tastes are constantly shifting. I love playing stuff I initially don’t like; that’s a test. How am I going to make it work? That’s one of the joys of being a performer. You grow your way into a work. You dig in; it’s an excavation process.”

Looking forward to his first visit to the foothills, Tao knows the one thing he won’t do: Drive.

“I don’t drive; that’s the one sign I’m a real New Yorker,” he said with another laugh. “It terrifies me! In California, I’ll let someone else drive for me.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Conrad Tao at Music in the Mountains

  • What: Performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with orchestra (Wednesday) and in recital, including his own work (Thursday)
  • Where: Amaral Center, Nevada County Fairgrounds, 11228 McCourtney Road, Grass Valley
  • When: 7:30 p.m. July 1 and July 2
  • Cost: Concerto, $12-$68; recital, $5-$25
  • Information: (530) 265-6124,

Note: Music in the Mountains continues through July 5. Pianist and composer Randy Newman ($37.50-$55) performs on the lawn at 8 p.m. Friday. For full schedule, see website.