Davies Hall, San Francisco
July 24, 2015
The San Francisco Symphony
Edwin Outwater, conductor
Conrad Tao, piano
Rachmaninoff – The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Rimsky-Korsakov – Procession of the Nobles from Mlada
Liadov – The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62
Mosolov – The Iron Foundry, Op. 19
Prokofiev – Scenes from Romeo and Juliet
There is a special feeling at Davies Hall in summer. The weather is balmy, if we are lucky. The sun is still up as the concert begins. But our hair is let down. Children are present, and young people dot the aisles in remarkable stages of undress. The air of eager informality is like a visit to the movies—minus the smell of popcorn. And, musically speaking, here we sometimes get the chance to hear romantic rarities we secretly love.
I was prepared for this. But I wasn’t remotely ready for the most impressive piano debut I’ve heard in years. Conrad Tao actually performed here at age fourteen, in 2008. But this year’s engagement was surely the debut that mattered. Tao is only twenty-one and still pursuing his Columbia/Juilliard joint degree. But he is already in demand everywhere, and a big international career will surely follow.
Here’s why. Pianists, like conductors, vary widely in how much body energy they throw into dancing with the sounds they create. Some impress just by sitting still and moving their fingers. More commonly, of course, the soloist sways like a hang-glider in moments of romance and attacks the instrument with Karate at climaxes. If lucky, the audience catches the spirit and begins to move with him. And the way a pianist gets this attention plays into what we mean by his style and charisma. There are tricks.
Lang Lang, for instance, has become famous for his Groucho Marx visual double takes. He tosses off a difficult passage, then glances at the audience with astonished widened eyes, as if to say “Can you believe I just did that!?” That’s dangerous to pull off, because you step outside the music’s own narrative. It interrupts the plot and addresses the audience, even without words. But in Lang Lang’s case, it works to display his special romantic response to the music.
Conrad Tao is viscerally “over the top” in a different way. All coiled intensity, Tao has so much energy left over in his arms and body as he plays, that sometimes he seems to conduct. At various points in the Rachmaninoff, in fact, the orchestra was clearly following him. But orchestras don’t do that unless the pianist is delivering something highly individual. Tao is like conductor Vasily Petrenko to watch, in the sense that every note goes through his body like a spear. Caught-up in the moment, Tao sometimes shadow-kicks the pedal mechanism of the piano so violently, you think his next move will be to destroy it.
None of this is worth anything, of course, unless the playing is incandescent. I can only say this was the best performance of the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations I have ever heard, on or off disc. Tao was so vivid, he might as well have been Gershwin at the keyboard. Every note was electric. And the last movement of the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata, offered as an encore, simply made everyone’s jaw drop. Jeremy Denk can do this sort of thing. Tao may pull it off even better…
It’s hard to convey musical enthusiasm in words. This was a summer concert, and the orchestra was missing its first desk players. But irrespective of that or any rehearsal limitations, the music throughout was beautifully turned. Not just Conrad Tao impressed. Edwin Outwater proved himself a sensitive conductor. And I was grateful for his programming choices.
I’ve waited a lifetime to hear Isle of the Dead and The Iron Foundry. Now that I have, I can barely claim survival after being assaulted by the latter. This remarkable Soviet “factory piece” hammers and pounds, and just when you think it has pummeled you all it can, the entire horn section stands up repeatedly in phalanx and blares held notes at you. No wonder the work was a Stokowski specialty!
Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead and Liadov’s Tristan-like Enchanted Lake made for fine contrast with the more energetic side of the program. And I noted with amusement, as the Rimsky-Korsakov processional began, that it surely now suggests PBS’s Washington Week to the listener more than the opera from which it is taken!
Outwater’s selections from Romeo and Juliet were more on the light and skittery side than usual, but this suited the summer mood. There was plenty of delicious melody, as well. The reduced orchestra managed to produce rich sonorities, even though the basses were only four or five in number throughout.
Things ended with the Death of Tybalt. This is the sort of death that makes audiences feel alive. But anyone seriously musical was already enlivened and dazzled—by Conrad Tao.
As the sometime summer audience slipped into the still good night, you wondered if it knew just how good a night it had been….