Fort Worth — Twenty-two-year-old Conrad Tao’s star has been rising rapidly in the classical music world in recent seasons; Dallas music-lovers came to know him as both composer and pianist in his role as artist-in-residence with the Dallas Symphony for the 2015-16 season and for his appearance, at age 17, in recital on the Cliburn series at Bass Performance Hall in 2011. Thursday night, he returned to Fort Worth on The Cliburn’s Cliburn Sessions series at Live Oak Music Hall, a cool, casual lounge venue more often associated with just about any kind of music except classical. (Tao’s piano teacher at Juilliard, Yoheved Kaplinksi, was spotted at a table at the back of the room, with Fort Worth Symphony emeritus music director John Giordano.)
Tao impressively and successfully carried his unique approach to classical music into this alternate scene, presenting a program mixing a generous dose of music by living composers with one heavy-duty monument of the piano repertoire. While American orchestras these days have acquired the healthy habit of throwing a contemporary work into every other concert or so, Tao proved that balancing a substantial body of new, groundbreaking music with one of the more demanding works from the canon (in this case, Beethoven’s Sonata No 31 in A-flat, Opus 110) can create a fascinating, and, judging by audience response, crowd-pleasing program. Orchestras, artists, and presenters restrained by the concept that audiences have to hear something from the classical hit parade on every concert, and that every new work has to be balanced by a warhorse (which Opus 110 is definitely not), should take notice of Tao’s very successful strategy.
Tao pulled the audience into his unique artistic world with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe’s “Compassion,” an 8-minute minimalist crescendo with an effectively abrupt, quiet denouement. The only flaw in this piece is the burdensome title, forcing some extraneous and limited meaning onto an otherwise captivating exercise in musicality.
The equally entrancing “Which Side Are You On,” a set of variations by Frederic Rzewski based on a protest song from the bloody labor conflicts of 1931 in Harlan County, Kentucky, provided a sometimes lyrical, sometimes jazzy, sometimes playful—and always energetic—continuation of the intense aura of the concert, at the same time showing off Tao’s dazzling piano technique.
Tao added the aspect of electronic playback to the program with a montage, performed without break, beginning with a pair of works (“This Central Valley Heat is Killing Us All” and “Consider It”) by Australian composer Dan Thorpe. The Thorpe works, featuring a largely minimalist acoustic piano role against bits of recorded voice memos (among other non-traditional elements). Missy Mazolli’s “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” likewise mixed acoustic piano with electronic sound, in this case creating the sense of the hallucinations experienced by the eponymous Swiss explorer on her death by drowning in Africa.
Then, without break, and in a magnificently effective link, Tao segued into Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song “Du bist die Ruh” (“You are my Rest”), introduced with a gorgeous pianissimo and played with insightful restraint.