Pianist Conrad Tao on quest to revive concert experience
Virtuoso finds inspiration in pop music as it is ‘not too precious’ and had less of the ‘immaterial babble’ of classical
Pianist Conrad Tao has played top concert halls from an early age, but after the release of his latest album, he chose to perform for a casual crowd in a crypt under a New York church.
The 21-year-old, who has won some of classical music’s most prestigious awards, says he is constantly on the lookout for potential new concert venues, from practice rooms to disused restaurants, and has previously incorporated abstract video into performances.
Tao’s goal is to make concerts engaging and fresh – qualities he believes that much of the classical music establishment, despite its persistent complaints about declining attendance, has ignored.
“The work doesn’t have to be brand new, but hopefully the performance is new,” says American-born Tao.
“I never blame audiences – that’s a rule of mine. If audiences come to concert halls for familiarity, I don’t think it’s their problem; I think we’ve kind of cultivated that relationship with them.
“I don’t think that familiarity is all that sustainable and it’s also, from a selfish perspective, just not that interesting to me.”
Tao hopes to create a more welcoming atmosphere than that fostered by formal concerts, saying he feels satisfied when audience members feel comfortable coming up to him and saying what they did not like.
“Audiences do enjoy feeling challenged, as long as you are not being pedantic or patronising.”
Classical music leaders – especially in the US, where there is less public financing than in much of Europe – have for years fretted over how to stem the greying of audiences.
A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found a growing decline in US classical attendance, with more than one-third of the audience over the age of 65.
Tao – as qualified as anyone to speak about young people in classical music – broaches the topic reluctantly.
“I find myself getting frustrated often with those conversations, because I fear that a lot of the time, they just look at young audiences as nothing but a demographic,” he says. “I think it comes from this place of just kind of believing that cultural institutions, like concert halls and what have you, are inherently fine, are inherently valid, and should continue the way they exist now.
“In fact, I think there is a more fundamental question which is, well, concerts are too expensive. Or concerts are not presented with young people in mind.”
After the release of his latest album, Pictures, Tao played in the damp intimacy of a crypt underneath the Church of the Intercession in Harlem.
When he celebrated his 19th birthday, Tao organised what he called the Unplay Festival in Brooklyn, which explored the interdisciplinary nature of music, featuring animated video and a composition that couples piano and iPad.
Pictures takes as its heart Pictures at an Exhibition, the monumental piano suite by Modest Mussorgsky that musically captures images rekindled by the death of the Russian composer’s artist friend Viktor Hartmann.
Tao performs Pictures at an Exhibition with an emotional intensity so palpable that it comes off physically, with the final movement’s triumphant chords shaking both the pianist and crowd around him in the crypt.
Yet Tao also captures the sadness implicit in the piece. The album features an original composition by Tao in memory of a late piano teacher, as well as two of the haunting “memory pieces” by David Lang.
Tao says the album started as a recording of Mussorgsky’s suite, but that he gradually found ideas “that not only I wanted to say with the piece, but I was absolutely able to do with the piece”.
Tao, a long-time New York resident who was born in Illinois, played his orchestral debut at the age of eight and has won a raft of prestigious awards, including the Avery Fisher Career Grant.
Yet Tao also has a keen interest in pop music and has released a synth-pop album under the name Tau Tau.
A frequent social media user, he was recently heaping praise on Canadian synth-pop artist Grimes for her eagerly awaited new album.
Tao says he found inspiration in pop music as it is “not too precious” and had less of the “immaterial babble” he too often saw in classical.
“Culturally, we are living in a time where we are more freely rejecting the notion ... that we have some unassailable cultural canon that we just appreciate as great uncritically,” he says.