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Keyboard-wonder Conrad Tao joins Pacific Symphony for a spellbinding performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3; plus, orchestra delivers Beethoven’s brilliant “Eroica”

Orange County, Calif. — November 20, 2015

Powerhouse performances make for a breathtaking evening when Pacific Symphony, led by Music Director Carl St.Clair, performs Beethoven’s dramatic “Eroica” Symphony on a program that includes another musical marvel, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, performed by Chinese-American sensation Conrad Tao. The calm, controlled opening of Prokofiev’s Concerto disarms the audience for the tumult that’s to come—scales swoop through the orchestra and the keyboard explodes as Tao performs his magic. Now 21, the pianist has been called “the most exciting prodigy to ever come my way” by a music critic at Musical America, while The New York Times says he plays with “fiery panache” and New York Magazine notes Tao’s “aggressive charm and flashes of genuine wisdom.”

On the second half of the concert, Beethoven’s popular third symphony—filled with drama, death, resistance, strife and ultimate rebirth—provides a thrilling conclusion to the evening. If one symphony can be called a turning point in the way Beethoven and the world viewed the form, it is the “Eroica.” Where Beethoven’s first two symphonies are graceful and decorously Classical, with the influence of Haydn and Mozart clearly heard, the Symphony No. 3 is a bold musical utterance that is longer in duration and bolder in its ideas than were its predecessors—literally a heroic symphony.

The concert takes place Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 3-5, at 8 p.m. in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Tickets range from $25-$110. A preview talk begins at 7 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, please call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.

“I look forward to the piece’s rogue wink, its madcap chase scenes, its moments of sweeping romanticism,” says Tao. “I’ve had a distinct place in my heart for this piece ever since it helped launch my career via a concerto competition back in 2006, in which I was the only participant. (My preferred kind of competition.)”

“Tao possesses startling technical elan and an ability to communicate clearly, no matter how thorny a score may become. He also has a hefty dash of charm…”—Baltimore Sun

Opening the concert is Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, which begins with a lyrical clarinet solo. With the entry of the piano’s solo voice, the music becomes a musical adventure in the hands of Tao. Despite his young age, Tao has quite a history with Pacific Symphony, as this will be his fourth performance with the orchestra. The virtuoso was just 16 years old when he first played with the orchestra in June 2011, filling in at the last-minute for an ailing Yuja Wang and leaving the audience awe-struck by the magnitude of his talent as he took on Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The pianist’s tremendous power and blazing speed (required for this Russian showpiece), belied his youthful appearance and ensured his swift return. In October 2012, Tao, by then 18, was asked back to tackle Grieg’s impassioned and demanding Piano Concerto, which he did with equal aplomb, another standing ovation and critical acclaim:

“…he revealed a real understanding of the score [Grieg’s Piano Concerto] in his crisply inflected and strongly sculpted fortissimos and effervescent scherzando playing,” wrote Orange County Register critic, Tim Mangan. “His phrasing was consistently alert and active, shaded and colored sensitively, but it never put on airs. The music was the thing. St.Clair and the orchestra supported him handsomely, and caught Tao’s fire.”

The Symphony began its 35th season with 19-year-old Tao, who was welcomed back like royalty. “Tao was the highlight of the evening,” wrote Mangan. “He took on Rachmaninoff’s daunting and infamous Piano Concerto No. 3, a most unreasonable work that he, somehow, made sound perfectly reasonable. …To Tao, Rach 3 is a piece of music with ebbs and flows, highs and lows, little details to be nurtured and thundering bits to be dispatched clearly…[Tao’s] playing was purposeful… This was a crisp, clear-eyed and thoroughly musical interpretation. His technique rose to every occasion. The finale was especially fun; he took it very quickly”

“This is my fourth appearance with Pacific Symphony, and I'm so excited to be coming back!” enthuses Tao. “The Prokofiev has a more serrated blade than the Rachmaninov and Grieg works I've performed in years past, so that’ll be fun to sharpen at Segerstrom.”

It’s difficult to know exactly why any of Prokofiev’s thrilling piano concertos are not heard more often, much less his third. The composer completed the piece while on vacation during the summer of 1921. He had been ruminating over it for quite some time and took most of its themes from material he had been gathering for 10 years. The result sounds miraculously cohesive rather than cobbled together. His style is instantly recognizable: irresistible rhythmic energy, strong percussive edge, impish wit, vibrant orchestral palette and a warm lyrical impulse, which all explain the lasting success of the piece. After its premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the composer as soloist, it quickly became a repertory staple, both for the composer himself (it is the only concerto he recorded) and for many other pianists.

On the second half of the concert, and not to be outshined, is Beethoven’s Third Symphony—a piece that is 200 years old yet still seems modern. In this symphony Beethoven began to use broad strokes of sound to tell us how he felt, and what being alive meant to him. The piece caused a sensation and changed the idea of what a symphony could be.

When Beethoven called this piece “heroic,” he wasn’t kidding. It’s bigger, longer than a symphony had ever been. It’s confessional, even confrontational. Just the scale of it was huge, unprecedented—and daunting for its first listeners. It foreshadowed the world that Wagner and, ultimately, Sigmund Freud would explore—the realm of the unconscious. That’s what was so revolutionary. Beethoven said that this symphony was his favorite. In it, he envisioned where his music was going and in fact where the music of the future was going. All the works that followed it—by Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler—would have been impossible without the pathfinding steps that Beethoven took in this symphony.

The Symphony’s Classical series performances are made possible by the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation, with additional support from the Avenue of the Arts Wyndham Hotel; KUSC and PBS SoCal.

 

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