Friday, 15 February 2013

The One To Watch: Conrad Tao

Eighteen-year-old Chinese-American Conrad Tao, pianist and composer
Tonight I went to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall to watch the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra led by new music director Jaap van Zweden.

I'd never seen him before in person so it was surprising to see a man short in stature, but he sure makes up for it in enthusiasm and passion.

He replaced Edo de Waart who'd been at the helm of the orchestra since 2004, so perhaps it was time for a change.

And van Zweden has quickly won the admiration of Hong Kong audiences, who are keen to follow his program.

Jaap van Zweden of the HKPO
Two works were performed tonight -- Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K467 and Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D.

For Mozart, van Zweden introduced a rising star, pianist and composer Conrad Tao to the stage. Only 18, the Chinese-American is a prodigy who gave his first piano recital at four and made his concerto debut four years later.

He's currently studying at Columbia University-Juillard School and studies piano at Juilliard, composition at Yale University.

For van Zweden's inaugural concert in Hong Kong as music director, Tao was commissioned by the orchestra to write Pangu. How much more can this teenager accomplish?

He came out in a black shirt, vest and pants, and when he sat at the piano he revealed some red socks, perhaps as a nod to Chinese New Year. Or were they his good luck socks?

In any event he performed magnificently, with such a delicate touch to the keys almost like a ballet dancer playing the piano with graceful hand movements. He really got into the music, but also technically brilliant at the same time.

He was so good that the audience wouldn't stop clapping even after he'd come out a few times, bowing shyly like he wasn't enjoying the spotlight. However he should -- he deserves it and should absorb the moment for what it is. But perhaps that will come with time.

Eventually he played two encores, the first a mind-blowing Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, followed by Rachmaninoff Prelude in g sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12 Allegro.

After the intermission, van Zweden was back with a very full orchestra added with some players from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. There were two timpani players, a full percussion group as well as a harpist and more French horns, cellos, double bass, and wind instruments than usual. As a result the sound was full and resonating throughout the room.

The Maestro doesn't like to waste time between movements and actually when Tao was performing, van Zweden didn't even look once at the pianist to see if he was OK or ready. Nevertheless, the audience thoroughly enjoyed Mahler, perhaps thanks to de Waart's keen interest in the composer.

Again there was non-stop clapping, but van Zweden didn't have an encore up his sleeve...

We have to say that while the audience was appreciative of the music, many were not respectful of the musicians. A few mobile phones rang during the performance, and my friend told me a man was burping next to her most of the time. Another heard the man next to her tapping his foot and it angered the man sitting in front of him who turned around to glare at the offender! We heard him speaking Putonghua which explained everything... but still!

In any event we'll be watching out for Conrad Tao. His rising star knows no bounds.

Jaap's Mahler
February 15-16, 8pm
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K467
Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D

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