The talented and tireless pianist Conrad Tao hails from middle America. The child of Chinese immigrants, he grew up with Paula Abdul, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and ABBA playing on the home stereo. He learned to read, he says, by examining the liner notes of their easy listening piano tapes. And he counts himself lucky.

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Conrad Tao
© Brantley Gutierrez

His parents weren’t musicians. His mother is a professor and climate scientist and his father, since retired, worked in telecommunications. But, he says, they “showed me that you don’t have to separate these things. They received unfamiliar things in a very open way, that could be a Brahms work that they hadn’t heard before or a Jason Eckhardt or Elliott Carter piece that they hadn’t heard before. I was very fortunate in a way.”

A veritable child prodigy, Tao was picking out songs on the piano at 18 months. His studies were soon made formal (he took violin lessons as well) and the family supplemented his music education with trips to the Ravinia Festival and to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He gave his first piano recital at age 4 and made his concerto debut with the Utah Chamber Music Festival Orchestra at 8. By the time he was 12, he was performing regularly and the family had relocated to New York City.

“I’ve been working ever since then”, he says. I’ve literally never taken a season off until pandemic time, and then I dove into streaming.”

Conrad Tao performs Frederic Rzewski’s Which Side Are You On (after Florence Reece).

The even-handed eclecticism Tao learned in his youth has come to drive his concert programming. Tao has recorded Copland, Mussorgsky, and Ravel as well as Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, and Toru Takemitsu. He works with electronics, in improvised settings and in a fantastically challenging (and, to the right ears, satisfying) duo with vocalist and noise artist Charmaine Lee. Asked about his restless approach to performance, Tao replies, “The slightly facetious answer is that I’m greedy and I want to try everything. My experience in new music, my experience as a composer, my experience as an improviser, have led me to my approach to old music.”

Put simply, trying new things – and growing up in a musically omnivorous home – has given Tao a tendency to see past typical divisions, a willingness to put works alongside one another based on personal feeling and inclination. Such spirit will guide his 6th December concert at 92NY on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he will play Sergei Rachmaninov alongside Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim and Billy Strayhorn.

Rachmaninov is hardly a new discovery for the pianist. He included five of the preludes on his major label debut, Voyages, issued by Warner Classics in 2013. But he heard the Russian composer’s music anew recently, in the soundtrack of an old movie, and it reinvigorated his interest in performing it.

Conrad Tao performs his version of Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up on Voyages.

“I am pretty intuitively driven when it comes to programs”, he says. “That means I’m susceptible to influence wherever I am at in my life and in my relationship to music at that time.”

The movie Tao happened upon was 1945’s Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean from a screenplay by Noël Coward. Structured as an imagined confession of an extramarital affair, the film makes extensive use of Rachmaninov’s popular Piano Concerto no. 2, as played by pianist Eileen Joyce with the National Symphony Orchestra. Brief Encounter is routinely included in lists of the best British films of all time. The concerto can also be heard interpolated in the songs “Full Moon and Empty Arms” (made famous by Frank Sinatra) and in Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”.

“I was really inspired by how Rach 2 functions in that movie”, Tao says. “It’s underscoring in a way but it also shows us that we’re diving into that character’s head space. It made me very excited and very amenable to this unabated sentimentality in Rachmaninov’s music.

“The other thing that came to mind is Rachmaninov’s relationship to popular music”, he adds. “All of this got me excited about a fairly different take on a Rachmaninov program. I wasn’t particularly interested in just playing the sonatas.” 

As luck would have it, 2023 marks the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth, so opportunities were in the air. In April, Tao appeared at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at California State University, Northridge, playing the Études-Tableaux, Symphonic Dances, and the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, alongside pieces by Sondheim and Strayhorn, Irving Berlin and Art Tatum.

Tao and Jay Campbell perform Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor.

That program will be revised and fine-tuned for the 92NY concert in December. Tao draws again from the preludes and Études-Tableaux and will feature what he calls the “lush chromaticism” of Strayhorn in the iconic “Lush Life” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”, as well as the lesser known “Daydream”. The program will also touch on Arlen, Berlin, and Sondheim and add Schumann’s Auf einer Burg (from Liederkreis). He’ll also be joined by cellist Oliver Herbert to reprise the Rachmaninov sonata.

The program is a contemplation on Rachmaninov’s later work, following his discovery of jazz and, in particular, of famed pianist Art Tatum, and “the possibility of Tin Pan Alley, New York hot jazz and that influence on Rachmaninov and speculating on his influence on the jazz and pop world”, Tao says.

“When I thought about it, I realized I was trying to tell a little story about Rachmaninov coming to New York”, he says. “He didn’t write a lot of music after he came to New York but I think you can hear that newfound interest in jazz.”

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Conrad Tao
© Brantley Gutierrez

“I’m trying to draw out a song sensibility”, he continues. “I would describe my program as an evening of song. I’ve chosen a prelude and Études-Tableaux that in some ways I hear as pop tunes, as a melody with gorgeous changes underneath. I’m searching for pieces with a specific sense of harmony.”

Those harmonies may be embedded in the work of the composers, but the search is Tao’s own. “The ideas come from a real place, a very intuitive place”, he says.

The restless search for new connections will continue next year. Tao will pair Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 4 with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida, and his own piece Over is paired with Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in Portland, Oregon, in January. A March run with the New York Philharmonic will include Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mozart. The spring will bring dates with his Junction Trio (with violinist Stefan Jackiw and cellist Jay Campbell), including a night at Carnegie Hall, and a concert with the British ensemble Distractfold as a part of the Kaufman Music Center’s Ecstatic Music series. He also recently completed a new work for the brass quartet Westerlies, and is also working on a piano and jazz band companion piece to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Tao performs a set with Charmaine Lee.

The different paths Tao follows as a performer and programmer, and more and more frequently as a composer, impact his approach to his instrument.

“All of this has fed my relationship with old music and it showed me that one hunch I had early on was right, that this regimented education I was getting wasn’t complete”, he says. “It seems like the only honest way to approach programming music as a musician.”

Conrad Tao and Oliver Herbert perform Rachmaninov alongside Strayhorn and others on 6th December at 92NY.

This article was sponsored by 92NY.