Pianist Conrad Tao kicks off Aspen Music Festival and School’s winter music recital series
While many musical artists are described as “virtuosos” as a catch-all term for “very talented,” rising star pianist Conrad Tao sets himself apart by making a conscious effort to embody the word and celebrate the legacy of virtuoso composers when crafting his imaginative programs.
Virtuosity, in its simplest definition, describes composers and musicians of exceptional technical skill. Virtuosos have that little something extra, that “it” factor that thrusts an audience to its feet at the end of a transcendent piece.
Conrad Tao will open the Aspen Music Festival and School’s Winter Music Recital Series with a concert at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at Harris Concert Hall, 960 N. Third St. The 22-year-old’s program explores virtuosity through the ages, from the 19th century’s Liszt to living composer Jason Eckardt.
Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Eckardt’s Echoes’ White Veil demonstrate how virtuoso composers have been stretching the imaginable limits at the piano. The Liszt sonata’s technical difficulty and negative initial reception kept it a rarity in the repertoire for a century. Liszt dedicated the piece to German composer Robert Schumann, whose wife refused to play it because she believed it was “merely a blind noise.” But the technically and intellectually challenging nature of the piece that invited criticism initially is precisely what draws Tao to it. Centuries later, Eckardt wrote Echoes’ White Veil. Compositionally, the piece is virtually impossible to execute as written. Eckardt, originally a guitarist in heavy metal and jazz bands, employs the improvisation inherent in jazz in this piece, and that freeform influence challenges both the player and the listener in the most exciting of ways.
In Tao’s program, these extreme examples of virtuosity bookend pieces that float away from that idea: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major and Julia Wolfe’s Compassion. Tao says that by crafting this program with examples of the physical limits of music being stretched alongside works that are brilliant but perhaps in styles that are more familiar to audiences, he hopes to give listeners a greater appreciation for what great feats those virtuosos accomplished in their music.
Tao, a virtuoso himself, is an Aspen Music Festival and School alumnus and rising star pianist and composer. He has been dubbed a musician of “probing intellect and open-hearted vision” by the New York Times, a “thoughtful and mature composer” by NPR and “ferociously talented” by TimeOut New York. He has been named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and a Gilmore Young Artist, and has been awarded the YoungArts gold medal in music by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts as well as the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.
“He is such a multifaceted artist,” said Asadour Santourian, vice president for artistic administration and artistic advisor to the AMFS, in an issue of the AMFS’s summer publication, Festival Focus. “Conrad has a wide and rather omnivorous curiosity in music, literature and sciences, and so his musicianship is not just informed by one vantage point. He brings this world of other interests into selecting the works in his program.”
In addition to virtuosity, Tao is bringing to his Winter Music recital a blend of old and new, one of his signatures in programming.
“One of my favorite things to do is to have this kind of mix and juxtaposition of older familiar works and newer, perhaps slightly more unfamiliar works – just having that friction,” Tao said in an issue of the AMFS’s summer publication, Festival Focus. “In many ways, I’m less interested in fusion and more interested in friction.”
In addition to Tao’s Feb. 9 concert, he will also appear at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Cooking School of Aspen, 305 E. Hopkins Ave., with cookbook author, percussionist and Instagram sensation Molly Yeh to discuss the concept of virtuosity in the musical and culinary worlds during the sold-out AMFS Salon Signature Event “Indulge in Virtuosity.” The AMFS Salon is an initiative launched last summer with the goals of enlightening and nurturing the next generation of classical music enthusiasts and concert-goers through uniquely curated artistic and cultural events.
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