Sunday, 27 September 2009

An Interview with CONRAD TAO, 15-year-old Chinese American Concert Pianist


A 15-year-old who is a concert pianist, violinist and composer might sound like some reincarnation of Mozart or Mendelssohn, but Chinese-American pianist Conrad Tao, who performs at this year’s Singapore Sun Festival, insists that he is uncomfortable with being labelled a child prodigy.

Speaking in a telephone interview from his home in New York City, Tao exudes a wisdom and maturity of one double his age. “There is too much misplaced attention on musical prodigies, and I do not like the connotations that go with it. Where I grew up, there were many kids who played the piano and I did not feel any different from them. Even though I started performing at an early age and have more experience, it does not change me as a person. So it really isn’t a big deal,” he said.

He was also never subjected to the same kind of parental pressure that plagued the early years of former prodigies like Lang Lang. “We had no musical background in my family. My father is an engineer and my mother a research scientist. My elder sister, who is now studying economics, played the piano and that was the only reason why we had a piano in our home. Not being familiar with the music business, we had no pre-conceptions or expectations of what a musical career was about,” he added.

What was evident was a musical gift, when he picked out the melody of Mary Had A Little Lamb on the piano at the age of 18 months. He also had perfect pitch, which helped his first music lessons – on the violin – just before he turned three. Half a year later, he learnt to play the piano. His mastery of both instruments saw him performing both Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor and Piano Concerto No.1 at concerts in Florida earlier this year.

He has however made a conscious decision to focus on the piano, while playing violin at a more casual level. “Having double majors is very tricky to manage, but has its rewards too. I got to play lots of chamber music and in an orchestra, something which most pianists do not often get,” he reasoned.

When did he decide to make performing his life? “That must have been my first concerto performance with a professional orchestra in Texas when I was eleven. It was the sheer thrill of playing, and giving something back to the audience that made it a wonderful experience,” he mused. For the Singapore Sun Festival, Tao will perform Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini with the Netherlands Radio Philhamonic Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden’s direction on 9 October 2009.

Composition is the third important facet of Tao’s musical life. “I wanted to compose from the very beginning. I was always making up simple melodies – resembling children’s tunes – before starting composition lessons at five” he recounted. Today, he studies with Christopher Theofanidis (left) who is on the composing faculty at Yale University. His compositions have included instrumental, chamber works and a piano concerto, The Five Elements, completed at the age of 13.

What is his compositional style like? “Musically schizophrenic,” he joked, “My style changes with every week and month and I do not yet have a specific voice. I try to find new inspirations and not sound derivative.” When pressed to cite possible influences, he reveals Minimalism and the chamber music of Shostakovich. “I strongly empathise with his music, especially the string quartets and Second Piano Trio. I would say my music is quite atypical, not very lush in orchestration, but stark and spare in quality.”

At 15, a whole world of possibilities awaits. International piano competitions are emphatically not one of these. “Having had so much exposure and concert engagements, it would be unfair of me to compete with other pianists for these performing opportunities. My teacher Veda Kaplinsky and I have decided very early not to go down this route,” he advised.

Outside of music, does Tao have any absorbing hobbies? “Living in New York City, there are so many fun things which can I do, like walking, reading and watching movies. What was the last movie I watched? District 9!” What does the future hold for Conrad Tao? “Music has been and will be in my life forever, but if my interests do change, I am not going to stop pursuing those!”

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