Pianist Conrad Tao dazzles in early SLSO debut
Feb 02, 2013 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Remember the name Conrad Tao. You're going to be hearing a lot about him.
Tao, who was to make his St. Louis Symphony Orchestra debut next season, stepped in to play Sergei Prokofiev's tricky Piano Concerto No. 3 with the SLSO on less than three days' notice, when an ailing Markus Groh had to cancel. 18 years old, and a violinist and composer as well as a pianist, he has been featured on "From the Top" in all three capacities, been an eight-time winner of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant, among other things.
The Prokofiev is a big sweeping score that requires wit on the part of its interpreter while making intense technical demands. Tao flung it all off with insouciant ease and apparent enjoyment, in a real triumph that was fully supported and shared by the conductor and orchestra, in a score that's a challenge for everyone.
Tao's flair and musicality won him a huge ovation, which he rewarded with an equally demanding encore.
"First of all, I'm Conrad," he said, then whipped off Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, a work that's almost as difficult as the Prokofiev, but in a very different vein. It was long for an encore, but Tao is such fun to hear and watch that no one seemed to mind. It will be rewarding to watch him continue to develop as an artist.
The Prokofiev was bracketed with two works by Jean Sibelius, the tone poem "Finlandia" and, for the second half, the Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major.
Conductor Hannu Lintu, a native of Finland himself, clearly grew up with this music, and he understands it with every fiber. He's a dramatic presence on the podium, moving with athletic purpose and clearly communicating to the orchestra.
He certainly brought all the brooding drama in "Finlandia," from the first chords through the central hymn and the blazing conclusion, for a memorable beginning to a memorable program.
That continued through the Prokofiev (where you'd have thought that Lintu and Tao had been working together for years) and the symphony. The 5th received an energetic, well-shaped reading, with all of Sibelius' distinctive themes explored deliberately and with tremendous artistry. The ending, its six crashing chords each dying away completely before the next was sounded, was powerfully intense, for a strong finish to the evening.
The brass opened "Finlandia" in perfect voice, and stayed in perfect voice throughout the rest of the concert. Section trumpet Caroline Schafer took the principal role for the entire concert, and took it with admirable tone and style.
Sibelius writes powerful music for all the winds, and the SLSO's players nailed every note throughout the evening. Principal horn Roger Kaza and the rest of his section were standouts, as were associate principal flute Andrea Kaplan and flute Jennifer Nitchman. It's easy to overlook the strings when the brass are stepping out, but that would be a mistake: they sang throughout with translucent tone.
Hannu Lintu and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Saturday
Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard
$30 to $108
314-534-1700 or stlsymphony.org
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