Conrad Tao, piano

At Paul Recital Hall at Juilliard on Saturday, October 18.

Conrad Tao is fourteen years old—a true prodigy, I suppose, though I hate that word—and I went to his solo recital at Juilliard with a friend from my old college piano studio. Sitting next to her, someone who’s heard me mangle basic Chopin nocturnes and Mozart sonatas, while some kid flew through a few pillars of piano literature was bizarre and kind of funny. Clearly I made the right decision in choosing not to pursue a career as a professional musician.

That said, Tao isn’t Artur Rubinstein reincarnate—though perhaps he could be someday. Like many extraordinarily talented children, he has more technical proficiency than musical maturity at this point in his development. His performance of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata lacked real passion (Leslie described it as “academic”), and his Rachmaninoff (op. 16, no. 1, one of the Moments Musicaux) didn’t vary much in color. I suspect the piano wasn’t doing him any favors—its tone sounded too bright and harsh—but even setting aside the restricted dynamic range, his phrasing lacked subtlety, sometimes feeling rote rather than organic, particularly in the Beethoven.

That said, he exhibited amazing control over the keys, playing runs, especially, with seemingly effortless ease, steady and crisp and precise. Dexterous fingers, great technique—he’s a talented pianist with limitless potential, a genuine rising star. (A month or so ago, in its fortieth anniversary issue, New York magazine named Tao as one of six New Yorkers who will be important and influential forty years from now—a conceit that both amuses and appalls me. No pressure, Conrad!)

Yet Tao didn’t truly capture my imagination until his third and final piece, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata. The Barber was the whole reason Leslie and I were there; neither of us could believe that a fourteen-year-old kid was attempting that twentieth-century masterpiece. The sonata is tremendously demanding on a pianist’s technique, of course, but more than that, it’s an enormously complex, sophisticated work, employing bitonality, twelve-tone rows, shifting meters, and extensive polyphony.

It’s one thing for a talented child to shine on a Mozart work—understanding the composition of a Classical piece is relatively simple—but the Barber sonata is for people who’ve already mastered Classical and Romantic forms and harmonies. The Barber sonata is for grown-ups.

Here Tao proved himself grown-up far beyond his years. His performance of the Barber crackled, all the moving parts coming together, all the themes playing out as they should. Suddenly I understand why it matters that Tao is not only a pianist (and a violinist) but also an acclaimed composer who has been winning national awards, including five successive ASCAP awards, since the the age of seven. To truly learn a piece, one has to understand how it works, and who better to understand a piece’s compositional structure than a composer?

Tao knew the Barber Piano Sonata; you could hear his confident grasp of the work in every note, culminating in the marvelously angular, brilliantly constructed fugal finale. (I’m a sucker for fugues, and Barber’s is a great one.) Listening to him play the Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, I thought the buzz about Tao might be a lot of hype, but after listening to him play the Barber, I’m willing to concede that “prodigy” might be an appropriate word after all.

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