Is there anything that 19-year-old American musical prodigy Conrad Tao can’t do? Here’s a kid whose concert party-piece is to appear as soloist in both the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto in the one concert; he’s already won eight ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards; this month he’s curating his own festival, made possible through various career grants, and now, with an exclusive contract, EMI have anointed him as the beacon of hope amid their recent slough- of-despond merger machinations. So his debut full-length piano album had better be good, right?
Well it is good, refreshing even, right from the outset where he begins with the seemingly implausible choice of avant-garde polymath Meredith Monk’s Railroad (Travel Song), straight out of the contemporary American minimalist library and ultimately proving an inspired choice, both for its crossover appeal and its sense of a journey lying ahead.
Here is a teenaged artist who grew up in a world where the old distinctions between high and low art, classical and pop have broken down, and where iTunes lists the great symphonies and sonatas as “Songs”. And it’s as “Songs” that he plays the selection of Rachmaninov solo piano Preludes, forming the first part of an album that contains all the joy and wonder of first encounters. It’s lyrical playing, almost like a melody with accompaniment – at least until he gets to Op 23 No 7, in which he unleashes his trademark cascades of glistening tone.
This is not the Rachmaninov stodge served up with the gristly Eastern European sausage that we’re accustomed to. It’s Rachmaninov wearing sunglasses and boardies on the Costa del Sol, impersonating Ravel’s Impressionism where it’s all about the glittering surface, like the sun on the sea, so dazzling in its immediate appeal that you never need contemplate the depths below. When eventually he does get to the actual Ravel, in the form of Gaspard de la Nuit, it’s so light in the touch that it sounds helium- filled, each note floating up into the ether as if independent of the human will.
Tan’s own compositions, on the other hand, tend to be of the technical showpiece variety, all tumbling finger-flays from one end of the keyboard to the other, leaving you wondering if he’s saying something profound or just running through the gruelling warm-up routines of the budding virtuoso. Whether he’s the real deal, as his charismatic persona suggests, or just the latest wunderkind fed to the wounded commercial lions of the CD biz, he’s certainly worth hearing.