There’s a poetic loveliness about the idea of an artist with the surname of Tao calling his first full-length solo album, Voyages. The phenomenal piano prodigy, Conrad Tao, aged only 19 and causing quite the stir in classical-music circles, is certainly generating some seismic waves on his own path – or “tao” — to stardom.
The Chinese-American teenager, who conceived and created the recent UNPLAY music festival that ran from June 11-13 in New York City, has already been an eight-time consecutive winner of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, and was the only classical artist named by Forbes magazine as one of the “30 under 30” in the music industry, in 2011. (He could have qualified for a “10 under 10” list had such a designation existed in his childhood: Tao’s concert debut came at the age of eight, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major.)
To add to the impressive vitae, he’s been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for a work commemorating the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination later this year.
Voyages, which begins with a debut recording of Meredith Monk’s Railroad (subtitled, appropriately, “Travel Song”) is a mix of original compositions by Tao that’s supplemented by piano pieces by more traditional composers as Sergei Rachmaninov and Maurice Ravel, which complement the central concept of the album in seamless fashion. (Two bonus tracks, however — consisting of improvisations of a couple of songs by Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys — seem out of place here.)
Tao’s playing on a selection of five preludes by Rachmaninov as well as Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is wonderful in the extreme, but his two original compositions, vestiges, and Iridescence (for piano and iPad) are the real treat. In the liner notes, Tao describes vestiges as “surreal images that were undergoing metamorphosis, literally and musically.” Of the four pieces that make up the work (all of which are prefaced with the preposition “upon”), vestiges: “upon being” is the one that most lingers. It provides a complex range of emotions, from yearning to contemplation, and leaves the listener with a serene sense of acceptance.
And though I approached Iridescence with a concern for contrivance, the piece, developed with the Reactable mobile app for the iPad, is actually quite interesting, creating a mysterious ambience that feels almost aquatically submersive amidst the ghostly sounds emanating from the piano keys. More importantly, it displays an essential openness to the exploration of new technologies in bringing fresh perspectives to the classical repertoire.
It’s very much in keeping with what the noted pianist Christopher O’Riley said of his young counterpart when he called Tao, “the kind of musician who is shaping the future of music.”
May the voyage continue.