Join us for a very special broadcast of two works (old and new) recorded live by The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia this past September at the Kimmel Center. The 21-year-old composer and pianist Conrad Tao (hailed as "brilliant" by The New York Times) is soloist in the world premiere of his own composition, An Adjustment - for Piano, Orchestra, and Electronics, and Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. Dirk Brossé conducts. Sunday, October 18, 5 to 6 pm on WRTI with host Dave Conant.
An Adjustment - for Piano, Orchestra, and Electronics - world premiere (2015)
a. breakable gaps
b. awkward didact
a. earnest build
b. euphoria assault
Conrad Tao, pianist
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1868)
I. Andante sostenuto
II. Allegro scherzando
Conrad Tao, pianist
Conrad Tao (B. 1994)
FOR PIANO, ORCHESTRA, AND ELECTRONICS
It is difficult to describe pianist and composer Conrad Tao without using the “p” word. He began piano lessons at age three, made his recital debut at four, and his orchestral debut with the Mozart Piano Concerto in A Major (K414) at eight. Tao studied violin concurrently, including six summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and is one of few musicians who can boast of appearing as soloist in both the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto in the same concert. He appeared three times on PBS and NPR’s From the Top, a radio program (on WRTI, Sundays at 3 pm) featuring the country’s most talented young musicians.
Tao was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts in 2011 and has received an Avery Fisher Career Grant, a Gilmore Young Artist Award, and a Davidson Fellow Scholarship. In 2011, he was the only classical musician named by Forbes magazine in their “30 Under 30” in the music industry. He is also the founder, curator, and host of the UNPLAY Festival for contemporary music, now in its third year.
Tao has already established an international career as a piano soloist, appearing with major orchestras across North America, Europe and Asia. Having substituted on short notice in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (twice) and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto—both known for their ferocious technical demands—he has developed something of a reputation as a “go-to” pianist. With diverse repertoire ranging from Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven to Meredith Monk, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, his technical virtuosity, and his thoughtful and intelligent interpretations, Tao enjoys universal recognition for his brilliant playing.
Tao is equally known as a composer. He won an amazing eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards starting at 9 years old (an award, it should be noted, given to composers up to the age of 30). His piano work Shadows and Silhouettes won the BMI Carlos Surinach Award. He has also written piano, chamber, and orchestral music, including Pángû, a fanfare commissioned and premiered by the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2012 and The World Is Very Different Now, commissioned and premiered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During the 2014-2015 season, he served as artist-in-residence with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
An Adjustment is scored for piano, chamber orchestra, and electronics. Though it is a world premiere, it is not the first time Tao has used electronics in various forms in a number of his compositions. As always, Tao conceives the music first and then decides how electronics best serve the music. In this case, the electronics serve as another instrument in the orchestra, largely providing a strong, bass-heavy beat. During the performance, Tao cues the electronic samples himself from a mobile device. Reflecting Tao’s remarkably inclusive taste in music, An Adjustment is inspired, in part, by '90s dance club music, specifically by the polyrhythms formed by the interaction of dotted eighth notes over a quarter-note beat. The rhythms fall in and out of synchrony, imparting something of a primordial, visceral feeling, as well as propelling the piece onward.
The interplay of different rhythms, however, is really at the core of this piece, and Tao explores cross-rhythms extensively, especially in the last movement, 4 against 3, 5 against 3, 7 against 3. Tao also exploits large contrasts in orchestral sound and dynamics. There are moments of very transparent writing for one or two instruments that give way to vast curtains of sound and dynamic range from pppp to fff.
The composer has provided the following notes about An Adjustment:
Here is a list of things my piano concerto, An Adjustment, is about:
• The way that depression sometimes makes every single minute detail, choice, and experience feel huge, almost melodramatic in scope; the way it simultaneously renders all those hyper-saturated details, choices, and experiences numbing; the harrowing, contradictory space between numbness and high-operatic feeling.
• Remaining professional and disciplined while in a strange, adrift, suspended state of mind; the curious tension that results.
• Dotted eighth notes; specifically, at least, in “euphoria assault,” the way dotted eighth notes interact with a quarter-note pulse in so much electronic dance music and modern EDM-inflected pop; the weirdly beautiful way the resultant polyrhythms fall apart and come together.
The piece is in two parts, each with two sections.
Poetically, the first part appears uncertain, as if trying to find solid ground. “breakable gaps” keeps trying to build to cohesion but repeatedly fails; “awkward didact” struggles to maintain its rhythmic integrity.
The second part starts from a place of acknowledgment and expands the sound palette to include electronics. “earnest build” narrates, almost romantically, the accretive process of emerging from a depressive hole; “euphoria assault” is the complicated, uneasily bombastic result of that accretion.
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA NO. 2 IN G MINOR, OP. 22
A virtuoso pianist and organist with dazzling technique and sight-reading ability, an extraordinary memory, and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, Saint-Saëns was a dynamic figure who escapes any attempts to pigeon-hole. While largely remembered today as a conservative who rejected the music of Debussy and Stravinsky, for much of his career he was a musical progressive—albeit one that often swam against the current of popular opinion. He championed German music to the reluctant French and embraced innovation, recording his music and ultimately scoring a motion picture.
As a child, Saint-Saëns was directed into music at the urging of his determined mother, a young widow set on seeing her childhood dreams of family realized. Fortunately for both child and parent, the young boy was a musical prodigy—quite possibly one of the greatest to date—making his formal concert debut at the prestigious Salle Pleyel in Paris at the age of 10. He enjoyed an even more successful academic career at the Conservatoire and matured in both musical skill and sensibility.
Following graduation, he ultimately accepted the post of organist at La Madeleine, Paris’ most prestigious and fashionable church. Throughout his 20-year career with the church, his remarkable skill achieved great renown, with his legendary recitals drawing listeners from all over Europe including Franz Liszt, himself, who declared Saint-Saëns the greatest organist in the world.
La Madeleine, ca. 1890s
His organist salary and commissions afforded Saint-Saëns the opportunity to advance his career as a pianist and a composer, performing both formally and informally. By 1860, he had completed three symphonies, two violin concerti, and a piano concerto, as well as a substantial number of chamber works.
Saint-Saëns composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1868 after prompted by Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein. With only three weeks to compose the piece, Saint-Saëns produced the brilliant work rapidly and premiered it, himself, on schedule. He did not, however, leave much time to actually practice, and its virtuosic writing challenged even his technical command. His performance failed to meet his high standards, and he ascribed the concerto’s lukewarm reception to his poor playing. Ironically, in the intervening years, it has become his most popular and frequently performed piano concerto.
While Saint-Saëns may sometimes be accused of following classical forms too closely, Piano Concerto No. 2 can certainly silence such critics. In fact, in form it more resembles the layout of a symphony, minus its first movement. The initial movement of the concerto, “Andante sostenuto,” opens with a solo piano introduction that sounds something like a Bach fantasia but quickly turns Lisztian, with rapid parallel scales, arpeggios, and an ascending chromatic line. Powerful orchestral chords announce the beginning of the concerto proper. The first theme appears in the piano, quiet and somewhat dreamy, and is thought to be based on a melody that his pupil Gabriel Fauré wrote for a Tantum ergo as an exercise several years prior. As the story goes, Fauré brought him the exercise and Saint-Saëns, appraising it shrewdly, replied, “Here, give it to me. I can do something with that.”
Consequently, the theme serves as a framework for ever greater pyrotechnic writing. Picking up rapid arpeggios when immediately repeated in octaves, it returns later on in the orchestra against brilliant scale passages in the piano and finally reappears in the right hand of the piano, while the left hand is simultaneously flying up and down the keyboard in arpeggios. The series leads to a cadenza where the second half of the theme develops over some very serious virtuosic writing. As the cadenza ends, the opening, fantasia-like music is reprised. Interestingly, the orchestral chords that follow, rather than signal a recapitulation, march very quickly to an unexpected final cadence completing the movement.
Contrary to what one might expect, the second movement is not an andante, but a brilliant and light-hearted scherzo. With a soft pizzicato chord from the strings and a brief solo for the timpani, the movement opens gently. The piano then enters with a theme based once again on the melody ascribed to Fauré, buoyant and energetic and scampering up and down the keyboard. The second theme, also introduced by the piano, is more lyrical and legato, but is set over an accompaniment in the left hand with a quirky rhythmic pattern and somewhat lumbering gait. Though Saint-Saëns provides plenty of opportunity for the soloist to demonstrate a virtuosic technique, the overall feeling is that same puckish good humor found in his later Le Carnaval des Animaux (The Carnival of the Animals).
The third movement commences with rapidly repeated triplets, first in the piano and then in the strings, almost as if the orchestra is revving itself up for the ensuing tarantella, which moves at a blistering pace. The theme is yet another rhythmic variation of part of that opening melody. A second theme contains a dotted rhythmic figure with a trill on the first note. As the figure jumps up and down the keyboard in octaves, the rhythm continually changes, building anticipation and feeling. Saint-Saëns knew well the secret of stirring climax, and this concerto is no exception, with ever increasing sound and motion for orchestra and piano, ending in a brilliant cascade of scales and arpeggios that bring the concerto to its conclusion.