Conrad Tao

Voyages

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The latest prodigy to make headlines is Conrad Tao, 18 years old when this album was released by EMI in 2013. The son of Chinese-American academics, Tao is said to have started playing the piano -- by ear -- at 18 months. The booklet blithely notes that he won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Composer Awards between 2004 (when he was ten) and 2011. Prodigies flare up and flame out, and the virtuoso works heard here, by Rachmaninov and Ravel, are well under control but not something you'd go far out of your way for (at least not yet). Tao, however, has a new wrinkle, one he shares with few others and executes very well indeed. He is, like Rachmaninov and Liszt, a pianist/composer, and he is one of just a few figures exploring that role. The early indications are good. Tao's own works, though brief, are quite engaging. With Meredith Monk's Railroad (Travel Song) opening the program and setting the tone for the clean, almost minimalist texture blocks of the whole, he offers four pieces called vestiges, with the humorously dissimilar titles "upon waking alongside green glass bottles," "upon ripping perforated pages," "upon being," and "upon viewing two porcelain figures." Even better is iridescence for piano and iPad; no information is given, but Tao seems to use the iPad both to record loops of figuration and to process the sound of the piano after the fact. The Rachmaninov and Ravel pieces are ordered and performed in such a way as to fit with overall evanescent mood (although not so much with the Voyages title), and the program emerges with both imagination and real personality. Given that Tao has also experimented with popular styles, he seems an extremely promising new figure.

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