Although he’s too young to get a driver’s permit, Conrad Tao has a command of the piano that is way beyond his years. The 14-year-old prodigy came to Newmark Theatre at the last minute in place of Polina Leschenko, who had to cancel her Portland Piano International recital appearance because of a serious knee injury. Looking relaxed and remarkably calm, Tao delivered a thrilling concert on Sunday afternoon in a program of music by Beethoven, Corigliano, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin, plus one of his own compositions.
Of course, many of us in the audience expected an unusually high level of technical expertise from Tao, but he made a fantastic artistic impression as well. Starting his concert with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 (“Appassionata”), Tao quickly delved into the music and found a deeper level, taking us on a journey through the emotional turmoil of this much beloved piece. The impetuous moments were terrific as were the quiet passages. Tao never overstated his playing, yet kept the audience fully engaged. Spontaneous applause erupted after the first movement, and several hearty rounds of appreciation broke out at the end of the piece.
On the heels of Beethoven, the next number was Tao’s own piece called “Fantasy-Sonata,” which he completed last year and premiered in Mexico City and at the Verbier Festival during the summer. The “Fantasy-Sonata” is a very sophisticated piece in four movements that teased our ears with a constant blend of harmony and dissonance, tempo and rhythmic changes, big, thumping sounds that almost slap us and gentle, small ones that flicker briefly. The moods were at times playful, then determined, then angry, and later sarcastic before ending with a feeling of triumph. I enjoyed the piece and would like to hear it again someday.
The second half of the concert began with Corigiliano’s “Etude Fantasy,” which Tao played with panache. This set of five etudes had lots of high points, but I liked the first etude, written for left-hand solely, most of all, because it created a satisfactory atmosphere of languor and mystery. Each etude developed its own character and enveloped the audience with all sorts of intriguing combinations of sounds.
Next on the program came two movements (No 1 and No. 4) from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Six Moments Musicaux.” I enjoyed the large emotional range and the many colors of the first Moment, and Tao played both pieces as if he had grown up with them. I would have enjoyed the second piece, but a very loud hearing-aid from someone in the audience interfered.
The program ended with Chopin’s “Andante spianato et Grand polonaise,” which Tao performed brilliantly, finding all sorts of nuances, and making the music sing. The audience responded immediately with a standing ovation, and Tao performed an encore, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11,” which was very fast and devilishly tricky.
I heard a big buzz in the lobby after the concert about Tao’s sensational performance, and he seems to have a terrific future ahead of him. Of course, with prodigies like this, who knows what will happen. PPI’s artistic director, Harold Gray, told me that he had tried for the past two years to schedule Tao for a recital, and this time, because of the cancellation, everything worked. I hope that Tao will be able to return in the future. He is definitely someone to watch.