Three Latin-American Sketches Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15 Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Conrad Tao (piano)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin – Copland & Tchaikovsky – Conrad Tao plays Beethoven [live webcast]
Friday, October 11, 2013 Orchestra Hall, Detroit, Michigan
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Piano a-go-go! There were three of them on the platform, two for Copland (as an extravagant part of a small orchestra) and one waiting for Conrad Tao’s Beethoven. This morning concert (beginning at 10.45 in Detroit) started with Aaron Copland’s Latin-American Sketches (1959/72). Once passed a very crackly start – sometimes technology just won’t play ball – there were spiky rhythms and a strident trumpet to inform the first Sketch, which proved quite severe. A seductive clarinet introduced the second, reminding of the nocturnal section of Copland’s ballet score for Billy the Kid; and the finale, a mix of this composer’s El Salón México and Danzón cubano without quite emulating either, proved lively and fiesta-like.
19-year-old Conrad Tao (born in Urbana, Illinois to Chinese parents, and at the Juilliard School aged nine) made quite an impression with C major Beethoven and benefitted from a bold and brilliant orchestral introduction, full of promise. Tao’s playing was crisp and accurate, lively and dynamic, and very musical, with moments of thoughtful reflection; the broadcast sound was well-balanced. The first movement was resolute with being relentless, expressive without losing the line, and Beethoven’s longest cadenza (of his three) made for unusual divergence without seeming too adjunct to the movement as a whole. Tao did well, full of character without novelty. It’s very easy to drown the slow movement in sentiment; here it was noble in its strides, richly expressive and not least in the solo clarinet contributions. As for the finale, something went seriously wrong with the broadcast, measures repeated and overlapping, heard once, then again; very odd. It cleared; well, it had done so by the time I returned, which was at the coda. Tao has a naturally engaging manner with music (he is also an accomplished violinist) and with audiences. He offered an encore, Leonard Slatkin perching on his podium to listen, although whether the scorching finale of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7 was ideal following similarly rambunctious Beethoven is a moot point. Nevertheless, Tao played it not only with easeful virtuosity but with more subtlety and variety than is often the case. I look forward to hearing this excellent musician again.
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was terrific both in Slatkin’s conception and in the superb playing, with full tone and passion. This is music easy to take for granted because it is so ubiquitous, but here preconceptions and cobwebs were blown away. From the off the music was loaded with burdened illustration, yet the Allegro was an immediate optimistic contrast signalling a volatile performance of exciting impetuousness and intense lyricism, all minutely and tellingly detailed. The Andante cantabile, with a fine opening horn solo, was of concentration and attractive flexibility. Grace and vivacity vied with each other in the third movement, and then the DSO’s depth of sound and precision came into its own for the finale given with stealth and modulation, trenchant in its direction, and adrenaline-fuelled in the triumphant coda.
The next DSO webcast features Sibelius’s Oceanides; hopefully Charles Greenwell, one of the webcast’s co-presenters, will work out how to pronounce the title, reduced here in his preview from its five syllables to three (“Ocean-ides”). He was all at sea with that one!