First Listen: Conrad Tao, 'Voyages'

NPR icon by Anastasia Tsioulcas
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Lauren Farmer

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Not everyone gets to celebrate his or her 19th birthday the way Conrad Tao will: On June 11, he'll release a major-label debut album and curate the first day of his own three-day new music festival in Brooklyn. But if any musician is primed for such a workload at this age, Tao might just be the one.

I first encountered the multi-talented Tao in 2009, when I was the North America editor of Gramophone and in the midst of writing a raft of articles about the Aspen Music Festival for a special edition of the magazine. Back then, at 14, the Urbana, Ill., native — who at the time was a student at Aspen — was already being tipped by the faculty and administration as someone special; I was hearing similar murmurs from his time spent at Juilliard's Pre-College Division. (He's currently enrolled in the double degree program of Columbia University and Juilliard — and therefore part of a tiny cohort whose alumni include composer Nico Muhly.) Since then, the accolades have kept coming, including a Presidential Scholar honor from the White House and Department of Education in 2011 and an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2012.

All of these honors are heady stuff, but it's still fairly easy for the jaded to write off the whole thing as a "typical" trajectory for a classical wunderkind. But unlike many classical prodigies of similarly and stupendously young ages, Tao proves himself to be a musician of deep intellectual and emotional means — as the thoughtful programming on this album, Voyages, proclaims.

The repertoire is far from standard calling-card stuff: There's Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit and five of Rachmaninov's solo Preludes from Opp. 23 and 32, but Meredith Monk's "Railroad (Travel Song)" opens the album, in the first-ever recording of this Monk piece. And not only is Tao a prodigiously talented pianist (and violinist, though he doesn't play that instrument on this recording), but he also emerges as a thoughtful and mature composer, as his four-movement vestiges for solo piano demonstrates. It's worth noting that composing is no new interest for Tao; he's won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Composer Awards since 2004, as well as a BMI Carlos Surinach prize, and has already done an orchestral commission for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

But what's going to matter far more than Tao's resume to listeners is what he makes them feel — and on Voyages, the pianist journeys along varied and alluring pathways, from the dreamy contemplation of the Ravel "Ondine (Wave)" movement to the jaggedly darting upon being section from his vestiges. His playing is strong and sure, and the effect is transcendent and beautiful.

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