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Soaring young star Conrad Tao returns to Pacific Symphony for Grieg's majestic piano concerto; plus, Music Director Carl St.Clair leads Tchaikovsky';s thrilling Symphony no. 4

September 27, 2012

Leaving the audience awe-struck with surprise and delight at his sheer virtuosity two seasons ago when he filled in at the last-minute for Yuja Wang, Chinese-American pianist Conrad Tao, now 18, returns to Pacific Symphony to play Grieg’s impassioned and demanding Piano Concerto. Called “the most exciting prodigy to ever come my way” by Musical America, Tao performs with “fiery panache” (New York Times) and “aggressive charm and flashes of genuine wisdom” (New York Magazine). Already toting an impressive career as an international soloist, Tao is also an award-winning violinist, accomplished composer and scholar, currently attending the Columbia University/Julliard School joint degree program.

For the concert’s finale, Music Director Carl St.Clair leads the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s soul-stirring Symphony No. 4, reflecting the composer’s own turbulent state as he explores the role that an unrelenting fate has in the pursuit of personal happiness. The mystical "Swan of Tuonela," by Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius, opens the program as Symphony musician Lelie Resnick takes the spotlight in the piece’s hauntingly beautiful English horn solo. “Conrad Tao Plays Grieg,” takes place Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 18-20, at 8 p.m., in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; a preview talk with composer-educator Russell Steinberg begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25-$112; for more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit PacificSymphony.org.

“To put it plainly, Tao blew the doors off...with a performance that was no less seductive in its lyrical beauty than hair-raising in its technical brilliance.”–Detroit News

Influenced by the piano music of Robert Schumann, Grieg’s only Piano Concerto displays cinematic quality with blazing pyrotechnics, thundering chords and swirling arpeggios, yet also contains a reflective intimacy in the lullaby-like central movement. After its premiere, the concerto gained so much positive reaction from the public that Grieg called on one of the most celebrated pianists of the day–Franz Liszt–to perform it in Rome.

“The Grieg is one of the most immediately likable and melodic concerti out there; its immense popularity is most certainly earned,” says Tao. “It is by turns contemplative, playful and majestic to listen to, and my approach to the work is simply to bring that wondrous emotional palette into relief.”

Called in June 2011 to perform Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” just days before the concert, the then 16-year-old prodigy captured the hearts of the audience, as well as the orchestra.

“It was exhilarating!” says Tao. “There was no time to process what was going on in those rehearsals–everyone had to bring their A-game. It was such a thrill to be making music with such a great ensemble, and seemingly off-the-cuff.”

“Conrad Tao is really a unique individual,” says Maestro St.Clair. “He’s not only a virtuoso pianist, he’s a wonderful violinist and a composer, and all of this is wrapped up into this young musical spirit. It’s just phenomenal. He’s such a delight to work with, and he brings this sort of joy of music making into every note that he performs, and I know he will deliver just that kind of musical interpretation when he performs Grieg’s beloved concerto for us.”

The program opens with Symphony musician Resnick illuminating the rarely heard sound of the solo English horn. Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela” is the second in a set of four symphonic poems based on one of the heroes from the Finnish epic poem, “The Kalevala.” Sibelius explained, “Tuonela, the land of death, the hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a broad river with black waters and rapid currents, on which the Swan of Tuonela floats majestically, singing.” His tone-poem evokes the swan’s eternal gliding and singing, and the English horn highlights the feeling of mourning.

Tchaikovsky dedicated his Fourth Symphony to his patroness, Madame von Meck, and wrote to her that she would find it “an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions.” The first movement opens with a booming fanfare representing “Fate,” and this motive carries throughout the work, oscillating with themes inspired by Russian folklore. Similarities have been drawn between this Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth, with the famous four opening notes representing fate knocking on the door.

“Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 starts with this impaling fate motive, which the composer called the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. It’s very dramatic,” says St.Clair. “The second movement is one of the most glorious and begins with a solo oboe, which is one reason why I chose to program Sibelius’ ‘Swan of Tuonela’ with the English horn solo for the opening piece. The third movement was a unique moment in music history, because it has all of these pizzicatos where the strings are just plucking. At the time it was written, it was a very unique sound that one rarely heard. And of course, the finale, like most of Tchaikovsky’s finales, is one with blazing virtuosity from the whole orchestra.”

The only classical musician on Forbe’ “30 Under 30” list of people changing the world, Tao was playing children’s songs on the piano at 18 months of age. Born in Urbana, Ill., he gave his first piano recital at age 4; four years later, he made his concerto debut. In June 2011, the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars and the Department of Education named him a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, while the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts awarded him a Young Arts gold medal in music. Later that year, he was named a Gilmore Young Artist, an honor awarded every two years highlighting the most promising American pianists of the new generation. In May 2012, he earned the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. As a composer, Tao has won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards since 2004 and received BMI’s Carlos Surinach prize in 2005.

Saturday’s concert is sponsored by Vina Williams and Tom Slattery. The appearance of Conrad Tao is underwritten by Sam B. Ersan. Pacific Symphony’s Classical series performances are made possible by the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation, with additional support from American Airlines, The Westin South Coast Plaza, KUSC and PBS SoCal.