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The Tao of Conrad

Conrad Tao makes a rare repeat return to OKC Philharmonic with Sizzling Sparklers.

Eric Webb January 8th, 2014

The Oklahoma City Philharmonic welcomes back 19 year-old piano wunderkind Conrad Tao this Saturday for a night of bright and energetic music with Sizzling Sparklers.

The concert will open with the “Rounds for String Orchestra” by American composer David Diamond, an optimistic piece that reflects the American spirit of the mid-century, followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, a sunny piece inspired by a trip to Italy that the German composer took in 1831.

Tao also joins the orchestra to perform Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev.

“This fiendishly difficult concerto has some hauntingly beautiful melodies that contrast with brittle, machine-like rhythmic passages that are blisteringly fast — a challenge for even the finest pianists,” said Michelle Winters, director of marketing and PR for the OKC Phil.

This will be Tao’s second time performing with the OKC Phil, having made a big impact with his performance at the 2012 season opener.

“He was so extraordinary that Conductor Joel Levine decided that evening to try to get him to return the very next year,” Winters said. “This is the first time Joel has ever done this. Usually, we wait two or even three seasons before re-engaging a guest soloist.”

Winters said that there seems to be no passage or technical demand that Tao can’t meet. What truly sets him apart though, aside from his age, “are his sense of humor and irrepressible optimism that bubble up through his playing.”

That sense of humor is well-suited for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, renowned for its wit and musical invention. Tao’s relationship with the piece goes back to a 2006 concerto competition at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division in which he started out ineligible but ended up being the only participant.

“It was great because the ‘competitive’ paradigm is most definitely not for me,” Tao said.

While he likes listening to other musicians, when it comes to preparing a piece, Tao likes to build his approach from the ground up.

“I prefer starting with the score and seeing where it takes me,” he said.

OKC is just one of many stops on a tour schedule that takes Tao around the world. While grueling, he relishes the opportunity to work with such a large variety of people, even if it is for a short time. Being asked to return so soon is a rare opportunity for Tao to build a rapport with the OKC Phil.

“I really enjoyed working with the orchestra’s staff, players and Joel on my last visit, so I’m very glad to be back,” Tao said.

Tao has been playing piano since he was a toddler and gave his first recital at age 4. He has won numerous awards for his work as a pianist, composer and violinist.

A student at the Columbia University/Juilliard School joint degree program, Tao is now taking a year off from school to focus on performing; composing; releasing his debut album, Voyages; and curating performing arts showcases. In November, he debuted a new composition, The World Is Very Different Now, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, commissioned in observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

While he tries to make the most of the opportunities that come his way, for Tao, success is not measured by accolades alone.

“I was privileged enough to grow up with unconditional family support, in which the traditional signifiers of success — awards, achievements, good grades — took a back seat to developing critical thinking skills and a rigorous understanding of concepts,” said Tao. “I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t benefited from my ‘successes,’ as their fruits have definitely provided resources for future work, but I have to find my personhood in something much deeper and more complex.”



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