IN: Reviews

The Way of Conrad Tao


Conrad Tao (Brantley Gutierrez photo)

The young American pianist (“all-round” musician, composer, improviser) Conrad Tao may offer more variety and thought in his performances than others in his superstar piano cohort. Confident and assured, Tao gave last Friday evening a memorable Celebrity Series recital streamed live from WGBH’s Fraser Performance Studio. So engrossing was it that I urge you to hear the saved version this week, available HERE for $20 until Thursday evening. I am thinking it will not be like other piano recitals we hear in 2021. (Hopefully others also will include Q&A afterward, for this event by the able WCRB producer Brian McCreath, as artists seek to reconnect.)

After last year’s cancellations, Tao the emcee informed us that “the Celebrity Series was down to make something happen.” Indeed. He continued by going on about the wee magnetized discs (a “musical tool” provided by a fellow pianist in March 2020, the start of the plague spread, a “uniquely pandemic-era development in my musical thinking”). He proceeded to plink a few into the strings to spur his riffing. Anyone who sat through piano recitals of George Crumb 50 years can be forgiven for murmuring, “Oh, why this again?” Matters stayed sincere when Tao, in black-silk jacket adorned with dark paisley decals, went on to explain how apposite the quaint aleatoric gesture was for this time-warped, chance-riddled covid era. But then the upper strings softly rang with the quiet metallic landings and Tao began to improvise, jazzily, leading over a little while into John Adams’s 1977 China Gates. This atypically non-tedious charmer did transport at least one attendee back to that future. At the end Adams just stops in an ethereal upward drift.

Afterward Tao repeated how the number one thing he liked about working with the magnets was that they are “at the whims of gravity” (! — if there is one thing that’s whimless …) and “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Then a puzzling jump-ahead to discussion of the closing work, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which we learned achieves poetic ends through classical means. But nothing sounded as twee, obvious or particularly puzzling about the upcoming work, Jason Eckardt’s 1996 Echoes’ White Veil, after a prose poem by W.S. Merwin meditating on sound and history through the passage of time, or perhaps it’s pondering of time and history through the passage of sound. Tao read it aloud.

A heavy-metal and jazz guitarist who becomes engrossed with Anton Webern and subsequently devotes his career to composition sounds like a rejected SNL setup concocted by conservatory grad students, but every Eckardt bio so begins. Echoes is a “hypertonal” monster. I have now listened to a half-dozen times, and intend to another half-dozen. Magnetic discs having been removed, Tao began 11 minutes on stun, from quiet single notes and octaves to recurrent trills, then everywhere flying hands dropping jaws worldwide, punctuated by ominous bass thunder and indrawing quietude, all free of bar lines, surely. It was astounding playing of an astounding, probably dated work, quite beyond tone-row Webern at x4 speed.

Tao’s agitated races and tumbled bursts made the piano bob. I cannot say the work’s solo figurations should be auditioned without viewing, or the opposite, which enabled its own headshaking moments. It cannot be true that Tao scurries like no other pianist ever, but the Eckardt Fraser overhead views (one of a handsome half-dozen robocamera aspects) look strikingly like spedup NatGeo video of nature’s intense bustle underneath forest leaves or at the shore. It must be no more like chaos than that, and possibly comprehendible in narrative or argument, not only in tremendous virtuosic drama. Yet it hasn’t the discernible (to me) order of, say, Webern’s Opus 27.

I found no compositional notes on Echoes anywhere. And many are the moments when one is tempted to head to one’s own piano and bang out loud random intervals, then soft ones, then glassy noodled pounding of clusters and scampers in the top 2-3 octaves, punctuated by portentous wide-interval paired notes, tolling. Repeat, differently, and then again, dense and prickly, and then again. Make your own imagery of Merwin’s historic gates being bolted and the veil revealing high winds to come. Your effort likely would be risible, not be as potent as Eckardt’s meditative, or scary, stillness surrounded by explosions and earthquake-panic runs.

Some may find Echoes ho-hum. As I flail here, I turn to the keen prose of musician and Rolling Stone writer Hank Shteamer, on the greater jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (any piece):

Taylor’s hands tumble like twin acrobats, sometimes leaping balletically over one another or making sudden violent lunges at the keys. While tempestuous, his energy is the opposite of haphazard, his technique as precisely honed for its purpose as that of any concert virtuoso. His phrases are in constant dialogue: percussive lefthand rumbles, answered by scampering, sometimes disarmingly playful high-register responses. And all this musical information just seems to pour out of him: When you’re fully immersed in a Cecil Taylor performance, all sense of musical scale distorts; it can be hard to remember where he began, hard to predict where he might be headed, but the sensation of the ecstatic, hyper-engaged and, yes, often gleeful now is unmistakable. (As is the immense technical skill that underlies his flights: “There’s nothing ‘free’ about any of this; it’s the construction of cantilevers and inclined pylons”…)

Taylor’s heralded states of abruption are almost as nothing compared with 1996 Eckardt, while his flights are shapely by comparison. But enough already — go experience it.

Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana (1838, revised 1850) comprises eight idiosyncratic miniatures drawn on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s literary depiction of a wild and witty conductor, in prose described by one native German speaker who translated it (Michael Steinberg) as featuring “unpredictable rhythm, spurts of nervous energy, excessively comprehensive but so flavorful sentences, allusions and almost-quotations,” … “whose style is fervent, fiery, sonorous, poetic, deliciously eccentric even while it is forcefully direct.” Schumann’s realization could hardly be more complete. It is all fantastic, also by turns intimate, mysterious, mercurial. Mad, else willful. It may well have been his favorite piano accomplishment. Dedicatee Chopin, after receiving his copy, famously snarked back that he liked the cover design. Every piece’s beginning adjective is Very except for the first, which is Extremely (… animated, inward, agitated, slow, fast, etc.).

If one grew up learning Kreisleriana from the lyrical Horowitz recording, later the spritelier, vehement probing Rosen read of the first edition, and I just enjoyed Cortot’s singing perfumes, Conrad Tao’s take will not seem notably musical, certainly not in the emphatic passages. He does accent the unusual, the clusters, the rolls clipped or smashed or otherwise compacted, so it cannot be said that he fails to convey the manias of the character. I expect Tao finds in this work too deep themes of sound and silence. But little in the Fraser performance felt ample and much came across as unsavored, in a tight hurry to make some point: look how more interestingly this goes when pushed. (I’ve heard polished Mozart and some outstandingly strong Beethoven from the pianist, so it’s not as though he disdains convention.) Other of the Schumann phrasing simply sounded not agreeable, interpretatively constrained in gestures of sweep, expansiveness, or simple dash. Labor showed at times, as did, albeit rarely, a plod or two.

No matter ultimately. Tao imagined and gauged much to perfection, and he will play it differently next time anyway, I wager.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Cheeky title. Admirable pianist with lots to offer

    Comment by Nicolas Sterner — April 19, 2021 at 6:28 pm

  2. Give a listen to this recital stream and see what you think. I am going to be following Tao more than before, even as I had his Mozart strongly recommended to me some years ago (when he was *really* young) by a working orchestral musician, a prominent bassoonist no less. Limiting myself to those <30, I'm a published fanboy of Tao's 'elder' peers Albright, PFang, HChen, his contemporaries Haftman and Beyer, and, younger, Niu Niu. But this recital content stood out. (Otoh, I sent a video of his Beet Op 31/2/iii to a piano colleague, as in steady power and drive it reminds me of young Kovacevich, but he found Tao in it unrelieved and undifferentiated.)

    Comment by David R. Moran — April 19, 2021 at 7:47 pm

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