By Carrie Garrison
At last Friday’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert, a program was led by conductor Leonard Slatkin and featured Conrad Tao on piano. At first glance this difficult program seemed to have no underlying theme. However, during the performance it became apparent that each piece told their own story through recurring motifs.
First was Conrad Tao’s contemporary piece, Pángu, which was composed when he was just 18. This piece kept the audience on the edge of their seat for the full seven minutes. It began with a slurred major second recurring motif that moved throughout many of the sections. Accents and syncopated rhythms gave the piece a lively character.
Based on the story of Pángu, a creation myth about the universe, Tao’s piece captured the optimism, hope and excitement of the story. Chimes and marimba were used heavily throughout the piece in different motifs and alerted the audience to important points in the story.
This piece was particularly incredible because of its strict tempo, which did not change. Tao used drastic rhythmic and dynamic changes to give the impression of a tempo change.
Tao’s command of orchestration was apparent as he used the whole orchestra in certain motifs which gave the piece a whirling and chaotic feel. The piece ended abruptly with large chords played by the whole orchestra rooted on a non-tonic note.
Next was Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. Conrad Tao was the virtuosic soloist. His petite stature was only recognized when he walked on and off the stage as his sound and command of the piece filled the whole room.
The piece began with the famous timpani line of a descending perfect fourth. Tao kept his eyes closed while listening to the beginning orchestra tutti. He bobbed his head along with the orchestra.
Tao came in with passion and grace. His solos incorporated a lot of syncopation and use of chromatic scales. The orchestra perfectly complemented the soloist by remaining sensitive to his sound.
The first movement incorporated chromatic themes and long lyrical phrases. It had a Charleston rhythm that gave it a quick and bouncy character. Themes in the middle of the piece were reminiscent of music from West Side Story, which made audiences members dance in their seats.
The second movement began with clarinet and trombone solos followed by an orchestra tutti. Tao interrupted the orchestra with his entrance which incorporated a new theme marked by staccato and marcato articulations.
The visiting concertmaster, David Coucheron, had many solos throughout the piece. His playing was very much in character and gave the piece an extra sparkle.
Overall, the second movement was reminiscent of American blues music and showcased each section of the orchestra. It ended with a flute solo that echoed the trombone’s beginning solo. Its serene ending created a peaceful atmosphere. This peace was not long enjoyed since the orchestra went into the third movement without pause. Characterized by electric, fast-paced and syncopated rhythms, this movement was violent and exciting.
Tao showcased his expert finger replacement throughout this movement as there were a lot of fast paced piano lines that featured the same note over and over in a different dynamic. Themes from movement one were readdressed in this last movement and the gong hits at the end let the audience know that the main theme would be addressed one last time.
The audience’s enthusiasm for Tao was apparent when he came out to give an encore performance of a piece composed by Elliot Carter in 2006. This was a virtuosic, showy and fastpaced ending to a wonderful performance.
The first half of the show incorporated tasteful dissonance and chromaticism. This was in stark contrast to the second half where tonicism and traditional phrasing were showcased.
The final piece was Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica, Opus 53. Composed between 1903 and 1904, this piece incorporated motifs for Richard Strauss, Pauline Strauss and their son, Franz Strauss.
Before the piece began conductor Leonard Slatkin addressed the audience and gave a short introduction to each piece. Slatkin explained that this piece was a quick 24-hour glance into the Strauss household and the whole piece was made of a manipulation of these three motifs.
The first movement, Introduction: Themes of Husband, Wife and Child, was exciting and fast and incorporated a beautiful concertmaster solo. The melodic lines sometimes feature the entire orchestra.
The second movement, Scherzo: Parents’ Happiness — The Child at Play, began with the oboe d’amore that played the child’s theme. This movement was calm, happy and major. It showcased mostly the innocence of childhood and was joyous and glowing.
Next was the Cradle Song which was melodic and peaceful. The final three movements showcased arguments in the family and good and bad times.
The final movement, Finale: Merry Argument — Happy Conclusion, was loud and grandiose. The final theme that was played was Richard Strauss’ motif, he got the last word.
An enjoyable evening was concluded with a grand standing ovation from the gracious audience. The evening was filled with chromaticism, tasteful dissonance and three separate stories told through the same technique of motivic themes.