Conrad Tao

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Hillary Clinton with Tao, in 2008, to recognize his being named a Davidson Fellow Laureate

Conrad Yiwen Tao (born June 11, 1994) is an American composer, pianist and violinist. Tao's piano and violin performances since childhood brought him early recognition at music festivals and competitions, and he is receiving critical praise for his recitals and concerts with symphony orchestras. He was featured on the PBS TV series From the Top – Live from Carnegie Hall as violinist, pianist and composer. Critics have found promise in his early compositions, and he won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. Dallas Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered, in November 2013, an orchestral work by Tao, to observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Among other honors, Tao is a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, a Davidson Fellow Laureate and a Gilmore Foundation Young Artist. He was the only classical artist named by Forbes magazine in 2011 as one of the "30 Under 30" in the music industry. In 2012, Tao released a solo piano EP, The Juilliard Sessions: Conrad Tao Plays Debussy and Stravinsky, and a synthpop album, Eyelids. That year, he was an Avery Fisher Career Grant awardee. He produced and hosted a three-night music festival, the UNPLAY Festival, in New York City from June 11–13, 2013. In 2013, he also released two albums, Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces and Voyages. Tao travels around the U.S. and abroad performing concerts and, at the same time, he attends the Columbia UniversityJuilliard School joint degree program.

Early life and career[edit]

Tao was born in Urbana, Illinois to Sam Tao, an engineer, and Mingfang Ting, a research scientist. Both parents were born in China and earned doctorates from Princeton University.[1] Hearing his older sister Connie's piano lessons, Tao began to plink out children's songs on the piano, by ear, at the age of 18 months.[2] He gave his first piano recital at age 4.[3] At age 8, he made his concerto debut with the Utah Chamber Music Festival Orchestra, performing Mozart's Piano Concerto in A major.[3][4] At the age of 9, Tao moved with his family (he has an older sister, Connie) to New York City, and he began studying in the Juilliard School's Pre-College Division[5] and at the Professional Children's School.[6] He won the 2003 Walgreens National Concerto Competition as a violinist.[4] In 2004, 2007 (live at Carnegie Hall) and 2011, Tao was featured on the PBS and NPR series From the Top as violinist, pianist and composer.[7][8]

Tao won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, from 2004 to 2011.[3][9] At age 10, his piano composition Silhouettes and Shadows won the BMI Carlos Surinach Prize.[4] His first piano concerto, The Four Elements, was premiered in 2007 by the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, Ohio.[1] In 2008, Tao was named a Davidson Fellow Laureate for his project, "Bridging Classical Music from the Past to the Future as Pianist and Composer".[10] In reviewing a 2008 piano recital in Berkeley, where Tao gave the U.S. premiere of his "Fantasy-Sonata", the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "The four movements of the piece tumble forth in a way that supports its hybrid title, suggesting both a free flow of ideas and an overarching structural framework. There are melodies for the ear to grab onto – especially in the slow movement, set against rippling left-hand accompaniment – and Tao varies and subverts them with glee; the intermezzo, with its spidery octave figures, is a little gem of sardonic wit."[11] Other early compositions include many pieces for solo piano and chamber music such as Tao's 2009 Piano Trio.[12]

He won both the Juilliard Pre-College Gina Bachauer Piano Competition and the Prokofiev Concerto Competition in 2006.[4] At the 2007 Festival del Sole, the 13-year-old Tao substituted for the ailing Italian pianist Fabio Bidini to play Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Russian National Orchestra. One critic wrote, "nothing could prepare us for the talent that leapt from the stage. [Tao's] command of one of the classical repertoire’s most difficult works was simply amazing."[13] By the age of 16, Tao had appeared as a piano soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Utah Symphony and San Francisco Symphony, among many others.[1][14]

It isn’t always easy to be an active performer as well as a student. It's a delicate balance that you never quite learn to master – but that’s also part of the fun. I love doing all of these things at once and giving myself as many challenges as I can, because I learn so much from the experiences that result. Everything I teach myself or see or do can be applied to a larger framework, and this is what I really love about being a teenager, a high school student, and a working musician all at once.

— Conrad Tao, 2010[15]

In 2008, Tao performed both Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor and Piano Concerto No. 1 in one concert with the Miami Piano Festival Orchestra.[4] He repeated that feat nine times the next year with the Symphony of the Americas in Boca Raton.[16] The same year, critic Harris Goldsmith, in Musical America, called Tao "the most exciting prodigy ever to come my way. His promise is limitless."[17] The Wall Street Journal wrote of a 2008 concert: "In Mozart's dark-hued Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, Mr. Tao showed appealing freshness in his use of telling, expressive details that distinguish one interpretation from the next – a slight decrescendo here, a change of tonal color there, a heartfelt response to the piece. The crossed-hand passages and rapid scale runs were performed with consummate ease."[1] Tao performed at the Ravinia Festival in 2009.[18] Of a 2009 performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major, the San Francisco Classical Voice commented: "The first movement was full of thrills: laser-sharp articulation and accuracy, powerful glissandos ... and, what’s more, heartfelt expression. ... Expressiveness came even more to the fore in the second movement. Never have I heard a left hand with such hypnotic affect, with right-hand legato melodies as smooth as a trip down the Seine."[19]

Tao has long studied piano with Yoheved Kaplinsky and Choong Mo Kang at Juilliard and composition with Christopher Theofanidis of Yale University,[20][21] and for five years he studied violin with Catherine Cho at Juilliard's Pre-College Division.[14][16] He also studied for six summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School from 2004 to 2009, mostly playing violin, and although "he has moved his focus away from violin, Tao considers his [summers] as a member of the [Aspen] violin section critical to his success as a piano soloist. ... 'I've gained an understanding of the dynamic between orchestra and soloist'."[22][23]

2010 to 2011[edit]

Tao was composer-in-residence for the 2009–10 season with Chicago's Music in the Loft concert series. As part of this program, the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music commissioned his "String Quartet No. 2" for the Jasper Quartet, which they performed throughout the U.S.[24][25] After hearing Tao play the premiere of his Three Songs for Piano (2010), the reviewer of The Washington Post called them "well-constructed miniatures exploiting different moods and textures on the piano. The juxtaposition was admirable; Tao made no bones about concealing his influences, with Debussy first and foremost. ... But influences aside, his compositional voice is not "derivative" at all; you can discern a clear, fresh imagination".[26] Among Tao's 2010 performances was a concert with Utah Symphony that included Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.[27] In the summer of 2010, Tao returned to the Aspen Music Festival as a guest artist on short notice to fill in as a piano soloist for an ailing Jeffrey Kahane.[22]

Tao completed high school in spring 2011 by independent study through the Indiana University High School of Continuing Studies, while studying music in the Juilliard precollege program and performing dozens of concerts on tour.[28][29] Of this hectic schedule, he said: "It isn't always easy to be an active performer as well as a student. It's a delicate balance that you never quite learn to master – but that’s also part of the fun. I love doing all of these things at once and giving myself as many challenges as I can, because I learn so much from the experiences that result. Everything I teach myself or see or do can be applied to a larger framework, and this is what I really love about being a teenager, a high school student, and a working musician all at once."[15]

Tao in 2011

The New York Times praised Tao's performance of Chopin piano pieces while accompanying American Ballet Theatre dancers at a March 2011 gala at New York City Center.[30] The Los Angeles Times wrote of Tao's 2011 concert with the Pacific Symphony: "In a dashing account of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, his attacks were crisp, with rhythmically tricky high-velocity passages cleanly articulated. ... Tao avoided sentimentality, his concentration drawing us into the composer’s spare and witty work as few virtuosos of any age can do."[31] Also in 2011, Tao was featured as both a piano and violin soloist in singer Jackie Evancho's album and PBS Great Performances special Dream with Me.[20] In his Cliburn Concerts debut in Dallas, Texas, in September 2011, Tao was again a last-minute replacement, this time for ailing pianist Louis Lortie,[32] earning praise: "[Tao] continually uncovered the energy and emotional underpinnings inherent in [the] music".[33][34]

Tao was the only classical artist named by Forbes magazine as one of the "30 Under 30" in the music industry in 2011.[9][35] Among other activities in late 2011, Tao led a Young Artists' program at The Kentucky Center[36] and won the 2011 Soloist-Prize at the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.[37] Tao was also named a 2011 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, and the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts YoungArts program awarded him its gold medal in music.[3][38] He was further named a 2012 Gilmore Foundation Young Artist.[20][39]

In autumn 2011, Tao began college in the Columbia University–Juilliard School joint degree program.[40] Asked what he does for relaxation, he said, "I find relaxation overrated. I find myself most satisfied and happy when I’m working [or] actively involved in anything. That is where I’m most content."[41]


Tao travelled to Europe, South America and all around North America to play more than 75 concerts in 2012,[42] taking off the spring 2012 semester from Columbia to accommodate his busy schedule.[29] His first major concert in 2012 was with the Utah Symphony in January. Of his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, The Salt Lake Tribune wrote: "Not only did Tao demonstrate prodigious technique and a decisive attack in the ... outer movements of the concerto, he showed reflective musicianship in the slow movement. [His] encore [was] a dazzling performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6."[43] The same month, Tao played Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A reviewer for The Detroit News wrote,

"Tao blew the doors off [the concerto] with a performance that was no less seductive in its lyrical beauty than hair-raising in its technical brilliance. ... The opening ... an expansive toccata-like solo flight, provided the perfect stage to announce a pianist of formidable technique, acute sensibility and excellent training. ... The concerto proper bore out every promise of the unaccompanied prelude. Tao's playing displayed fine shades of color and intensity, whether the passage at hand demanded reflection or flamboyance. ... Surely as impressive as the young pianist's capacity for whirlwind speed was his poetic disposition and the sheer finesse that ruled his playing."[44]

Still in January, Tao performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Symphony of the Americas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, showing "a natural feel for the concerto’s yearning melodies and restless energy".[45] In February, he gave his second annual recital in New York City called "A Piece for Peace" at Weill Recital Hall, presented by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.[9] The concert included the Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, of which Justin Davidson wrote, "No 17-year-old should be able to do justice to one of the most bleakly adult pieces in the literature, yet he played it with aggressive charm and flashes of genuine wisdom."[46] In April, Tao played a program with Orquestra Filarmônica de Minas Gerais in Brazil.[47] The same month, he performed three recitals at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Michigan, where he gave "a stupendous performance. ... The first half was elegant. Fireworks followed."[48] This was followed by performances in Munich, Paris, Berlin and London.[42][49]

A March 2012 feature in New York Magazine considered Tao's transition from child prodigy to adult musician. It quoted Tao as follows: "People underestimate how emotionally exhausting it is. ... There’s a risk that you can only feel intensely through music. Especially for young people, it's hard to do something every day that demands complete surrender."[46] Regarding Tao's compositions, the magazine quoted pianist Christopher O'Riley: "Conrad is the kind of musician who is shaping the future of music".[46] Tao was one of two Avery Fisher Career Grant awardees for 2012.[50][51]

Tao's next concert stop was in Mexico.[42][41] Then, at the June 2012 Montreal Chamber Fest, he played several Dvořák pieces and "stole the show with a once-in-a-lifetime performance of the rarely-encountered American Suite ... he plays music as if the composer were at his side, with color, joy and spontaneous poetry."[52] At the 2012 Aspen Music Festival, Tao "delivered the most arresting performance, attacking [Gershwin's] Second Rhapsody with a lethal combination of power, rhythmic thrust, technical perfection and sheer joy."[53] Among other concerts in August, Tao gave two recitals at Avery Fisher Hall at the Mostly Mozart Festival.[54] In September, Tao performed with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, earning rave reviews.[55] Tao's composition "Pangu", an overture-like modern piece inspired by the Chinese creation myth, was premiered by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, under its new music director Jaap van Zweden, later that month.[22][56] Tao was unable to attend because he was in Toronto playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6".[57] In October, with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, he played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in a "Jaw dropping" performance.[58][59] The same month, Tao returned to Pacific Symphony, executing the Grieg piano concerto with "crisply inflected and strongly sculpted fortissimos and effervescent scherzando playing."[60] After several more U.S. concerts, he ended November in Amsterdam with Concertgebouw before returning to New York for final exams.[42]


Tao began 2013 with the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra, playing Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody.[61] After playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 in concerts with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in January,[62] Tao was summoned by the St. Louis Symphony on less than three days' notice to replace another pianist in playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in concerts in early February.[63] Yet, Tao played the piece "with insouciant ease and apparent enjoyment. ... Tao’s flair and musicality won him a huge ovation".[64] The same month, Tao played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 and the "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6" with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. In the Mozart, "he generated some wonderful subtleties of phrasing during the opening movement, a light-as-air sense of line in the next and a different glint in the eye for every few bars of the finale."[65]

In March, Face the Music's Pannonia Quartet played Tao's String Quartet No. 2,[66] while Tao performed a recital at the Aspen Music Festival[67] and then was in Switzerland playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Bern Symphony Orchestra.[68] In April, Tao returned to Fort Lauderdale to play all five of Beethoven's piano concerti with the Symphony of the Americas.[69] A reviewer commented: "The mastery he displayed was more than the predictable brilliance of the grown-up prodigy, it was a performance that brought out the nobility, the eloquence and the dramatic power of these works."[70] The following weekend, Tao was asked on short notice to play with Utah Symphony, filling in for an ailing soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.[71] In May, Tao repeated his Beethoven feat, playing the five concerti with the Spokane Symphony. A reviewer called the event "a richly rewarding – indeed, unforgettable – musical experience" noting, that "Tao played the lengthy and difficult Concerto No. 1 ... without a flaw: not a missed or imperfectly struck note, not a careless or routine phrase, not a poorly voiced chord."[72] The same month, he previewed pieces from his 2013 album Voyages in New York City. A reviewer from The New York Times commented: "While there was much to admire in [Tao's] confident and sensitive playing, it was above all the program ... that conveyed the scope of his probing intellect and openhearted vision."[73]

In between chamber music and concerto performances on the U.S. east coast and at Aspen,[42] using his cash grants, Tao produced and hosted a three-night music festival, the UNPLAY Festival, in New York City from June 11–13, 2013, which explored the place of classical music in modern culture.[74][75] Challenging the role of music as passive entertainment, Tao asked those attending: "Why is there currently a narrow conception of what classical music is for, among not only audiences, but also musicians and presenters?"[76] Time Out New York commented: "The festival ... is fairly compact in its first outing, limited to a manageable three programs. What’s really impressive, though, is how much territory Tao and his collaborators manage to cover, and how cleverly it’s all arranged.[77] In July, Tao guest hosted WQXR's Hammered! with a series of episodes in which he played works by modern composers that evoke memory and remembrance.[78] In August, Tao returned to the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where he participated in chamber music programs.[79]

Tao's busy international schedule for the fall included more than 50 dates, including stops in Sweden and Chile.[80] In September, Tao played a recital and concertos by Shostakovich and Mozart with the Santa Fe Pro Musica[81] and opened Pacific Symphony's 35th season with "crisp, clear-eyed and thoroughly musical" performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.[82] With Detroit Symphony Orchestra in early October, his Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 was described as "crisp and accurate, lively and dynamic, and very musical, with moments of thoughtful reflection".[83] The same month, he performed the Britten's Piano Concerto with Orquestra Filarmônica de Minas Gerais, conducted by Fabio Mechetti, in Brazil.[84] Tao returned to Weill Recital Hall later in October for his third annual concert called "A Piece for Peace", playing works by Getty, Monk and Ravel.[85] In November, once again, Tao was asked to substitute on short notice for another pianist, this time with the Stamford Symphony Orchestra.[86][87]

Dallas Symphony Orchestra commissioned Tao to write an orchestral work to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, The World Is Very Different Now (named for a line from in JFK's 1961 inaugural address). The piece debuted on November 21–24, 2013.[12][88] A review on called the piece "atmospheric, creating shifting moods. ... [T]he work is never truly funereal. There are haunting passages that are strikingly appealing, though there are few, if any, sustained, well-defined melodic lines. Instead the work draws listeners by creating moods and with remarkable orchestral color."[89] Tao finished the year with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Canada, performing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19. A review in the Ottawa Citizen commented: "Tao's playing was almost startling in its clarity of sound and purpose."[90] To accommodate his touring schedule, Tao took a year-long break from his academic degree studies.[91]


Tao began 2014 with a return to the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in January to play Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, "illuminating the composer's acerbic wit, sly insouciance and unrelenting rhythmic drive. ... Whether in the decorative filigree passages or the pianistic pyrotechnics of this concerto, Tao demonstrated why his star is clearly on the ascent. This was first-rate".[92] Later in January, he played the same concerto with the Utah Symphony. "The level of precision on display was beyond impressive, and the closing minutes of the third and final movement revealed an energy that was simply exhilarating. Tao's ... approach to the music itself was dynamic, unusually expressive, and engaging, with the technical mastery always serving to aid in the interpretation."[93] With the Nashville Symphony in February, Tao played Ravel's Piano Concerto in G.[94] With the Colorado Springs Philharmonic the same month, he played Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody and Liszt's "Totentanz".[95] In March, Tao performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra[96] and then played Liszt's Totentanz and Rhapsody No. 6 with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.[97] Still in March, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm, he performed Gershwin's Concerto in F, followed by several recitals and private concerts in Amsterdam, Shanghai China, and the U.S., as well Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2 in York, Pennsylvania.[42][98]

In April, Tao again played Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2, this time with the St. Louis Symphony, where "Tao made it all seem effortless".[99] In May, he performed several concerts in Mexico, and in June, he played the Grieg piano concerto with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.[42]


In early 2012, Tao released his first solo recording with EMI Classics, an EP, The Juilliard Sessions: Conrad Tao Plays Debussy and Stravinsky.[100][101] Justin Davidson wrote of this album, "he plays his confidently poetic Three Songs, which hold their own with a pair of Debussy preludes and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka."[46] Peter Joelson wrote: "The Debussy Preludes are thoroughly in his bones, but the Stravinsky I must say is given a breathtakingly good account. Technically faultless and interpretively mature, this is a knock-out."[102] The same year, Tao released a synthpop album, Eyelids,[103] and a recording of Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 25 with Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra.[104]

In early 2013, Tao released an album, Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces, on the PentaTone Classics label (PTC 5186 505).[105] Tao's debut full-length solo album, on EMI Classics, Voyages, featuring Tao's compositions together with pieces by Meredith Monk, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, was released on June 11, 2013.[106] Allmusic rates the album four stars out of five.[107] Davidson wrote: "The playing induces shivers. The [Rachmaninoff] C minor prelude (Op. 23, No. 7) gushes out in quiet cataracts, lyrical and shimmering, a tour de force of delicacy and power."[108] Despite Tao's skepticism about a classical music establishment that is "grossly normative, capitalistic, and steeped in established, unchallenged practices", commented one reviewer, Voyages is "perfect in all the conventional ways: masterfully performed and composed ... cleanly produced, and impeccably sequenced. ... It's an absolute joy to hear him fly through each of these pieces, the essences of which are not overwhelmed but rather recontextualized, given new life ... [Tao] has the creative mind to think of them in new ways."[109] Fanfare magazine also gave the album a very warm review,[110] and the producers of the album was nominated for a Grammy Award.[111] A reviewer for NPR wrote:

Tao proves himself to be a musician of deep intellectual and emotional means – as the thoughtful programming on ... Voyages proclaims. ... Tao [is] a prodigiously talented pianist ... but he also emerges as a thoughtful and mature composer, as his four-movement Vestiges for solo piano demonstrates. ... [W]hat's going to matter ... to listeners is what he makes them feel – and on Voyages, the pianist journeys along varied and alluring pathways, from the dreamy contemplation of the Ravel "Ondine (Wave)" movement to the jaggedly darting "upon being" section from his Vestiges. His playing is strong and sure, and the effect is transcendent and beautiful.[112]


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External links[edit]