Pianist Conrad Tao rallies a modern generation of classical music mavericks

Pianist Conrad Tao boldly pronounces himself a “leader of a new generation of classical music” on his website. 

For Tao, that means not doing things the same old way. Not just performing but also devoting considerable time to composing. Not just playing solo recitals and orchestral concerts, but making chamber music a meaningful part of his schedule as a member of the six-year-old Junction Trio. And not just presenting standard programs but conceiving fresh lineups, with the new recontextualizing the old.

But don’t call it a career philosophy. “Philosophy implies something really coherent and really planned out,” said Tao, 29, an Urbana native, about his artistic interests. “I’m not sure that’s quite the case. It’s a little facetious, but I’ve been recently joking that I think I’m just very greedy in a way.”

After making his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2022 at the Ravinia Festival, Tao makes his Symphony Center subscription series debut Oct. 19-24 under guest conductor James Gaffigan in all-American program with works by Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. He will serve as soloist in George Gershwin’s popular Concerto in F, commissioned by conductor Walter Damrosch and completed in 1925.

“I love how punchy the piece is,” Tao said, pointing especially to the “coiled energy” of the final movement. He also praises Gershwin’s catchy melodies. Typically, the piece is described in terms of jazz meets classical music, but Tao doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think of Gershwin as a jazz musician,” he said. “I think of Gershwin as a songwriter, so to me, the music is more like song, dance music and theater music.”

When he performs the concerto, he tries to tap into the work’s theatricality, especially the drama of the piano entrances, as well as the “atmosphere of it, which screams New York in the ’20s.”

“I love how punchy the piece is. ... and the atmosphere of it, which screams New York in the ’20s.” — Conrad Tao on Gershwin’s Concerto in F

Tao was born in Urbana, where his mother, an atmospheric scientist, was on the faculty of the University of Illinois. He began playing by ear when he was 18 months old and gave his first piano recital when he was 4. He also took up the violin, which he continued to play through 2011. “I started before I remember starting,” he said of his music lessons. “The earliest memories I have of playing music are already being in a Suzuki violin group class.”

When he was 5, his family moved to Naperville in part so that he could begin studies at the Music Institute of Chicago, where he pursued piano, violin and music theory and composition with Matthew Hagle. He also took part in the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory in Highwood. “There are so many musicians who come out of the Chicago area,” Tao said. “I am really grateful I got my start in that scene.”

His mother secured a new teaching post at Columbia University, so Tao at age 9 and his family moved to New York, and he began music classes in Juilliard’s pre-college division and its Professional Children’s School. Particularly important for his development was beginning studies at the time with composer Christopher Theofanidis, who introduced him to a range of musical scores and albums and broadened his musical frame of reference. “It was my first clue that the canonical education that I had so far gotten was clearly not all there was, and that was very exciting discovery,” he said.

Tao asked his performance teachers for more contemporary music, and he took on works by composers like John Corigliano and Carl Vine, and began doing his own explorations of the musical scene, sometimes far outside the classical realm.

By just about any definition, Tao was a prodigy. By age 16, he had already appeared with such majors as the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. When he was 13, he substituted for Fabio Bidini at the Festival del Sole, performing Prokofiev’s towering Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Russian National Orchestra. In 2004, 2007 and 2011, he appeared on the NPR series “From the Top,” which features top young talents from across the country. 

At the same time, he was achieving equal success with his composing. He won eight ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards from 2004 to 2011, and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, gave the debut of his first piano concerto, The Four Elements, in 2007. He has since had other compositions performed by the New York Philharmonic and Dallas Symphony. He also is working on a piano concerto that uses the same forces as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The Santa Rosa (Calif.) Symphony commissioned the work and will present the world premiere in May 2024 with Tao at the keyboard.

With his packed performance schedule, carving out moments for composing can be tough. “The time-management thing is hard,” he said, “but I write music as much as I can all the time, sometimes on the road, sometimes in crazy 18-hour days at home, where I feel like I’m trying to will myself in hallucination.”

Tao’s early exposure to a panorama of contemporary pieces and his own work as a composer have opened his eyes to the vast possibilities of new music and made him look at familiar works from the past in fresh ways. “I wanted my programs to reflect that somehow,” he said. “I wanted to communicate in a way that felt real to me.”

A good example of his adventurous programming will come in March, when the Seattle Symphony presents what is being billed as the Conrad Tao Playlist. “I’m thrilled they let me do that,” he said. What he calls the program’s “gravitational center” will be Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, which he will lead from the keyboard. “That Mozart strikes me as a gorgeously elegant, formally precise price,” he said. “I also hear that opening as completely shocking and alien and beautiful and haunting.” 

The rest of the program consists of what he calls “old music and old sounds” configured in new and “exotically beautiful and chromatic ways.” Included will be Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, which Tao describes as a “warped Baroque work,” Purcell’s “shockingly contemporary and harmonically daring” Fantasia for Strings in F Minor and works by Morton Feldman and Linda Catlin Smith. He hopes these selections will make listeners hear the Mozart concerto in new ways and bring out some of its still-daring qualities that Tao so values.

In the meantime, Tao is excited about getting his first chance to perform at Orchestra Hall, where he has fond memories of attending CSO concerts when he was a child. He has a particularly vivid recollection of hearing Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins in November 2000 with vocalist Ute Lemper.

“I’m so looking forward to being on that stage and experiencing that space and hearing the acoustic,” he said. “It does feel a little like a full-circle moment from being 6 years old and sitting near the front in the sixth or seventh row.”