Interview: Philharmonic soloist Conrad Tao

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Conrad Tao cannot remember a time when he was not playing an instrument.

He also can’t remember that piano recital at age 4, when his feet couldn’t reach the pedals, but his parents have videotape to prove it.

Conrad Tao. Photo courtesy of IMG Artists.“I was using a device my father created so I could reach the pedals,” Conrad says. “It’s just surreal to look at myself when I was 4.”

That was only 10 years ago, although in that decade, Conrad has reached heights in his career that most musicians his age only dream about for their distant futures.

Conrad now spends many weekends on the road, performing as a recitalist and with orchestras around the country. This week brings him to Lexington to perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra and guest conductor Jeffrey Pollock.

His career started when he was 18 months old. He heard his older sister playing the piano. Then he heard Mary Had a Little Lamb on a tape of kids’ songs.

“I made my way to the piano bench and plunked it out by ear, which is when I realized I had perfect pitch, and I could associate pitches that I heard on the stereo into notes on the piano,” Conrad says.

The hitch was his hands were really too small to spread out on the keyboard, so he initially studied violin until he could start piano lessons at age 31/2.

He was growing up in Champaign- Urbana, Ill., taking in Chicago arts offerings until his burgeoning talent prompted his family to move to New York, where Conrad enrolled in the pre-college program at The Juilliard School.

“In Chicago, I was becoming known as the little kid who played piano, and my parents wanted me to be surrounded by other little kids who played piano,” he says. “At Juilliard, it was nothing out of the ordinary to be 9 years old and playing the piano and pursuing it very seriously.”

Conrad says being in a community of other young, gifted musicians helped him focus on his musical and personal development rather than being consumed with a drive to win competitions or things of that sort.

Still, his career has developed, as evidenced by the reason he had to cancel his engagement with the Philharmonic last year.

Conrad was to play the Shostakovich for last year’s November MasterClassics concert. But then he got an offer to be a backup to Argentine piano great Martha Argerich on her American tour. He never had to go on, but because a date conflicted with the Lexington concert, he had to bow out, with the promise that he would play the Shostakovich this year.

He loves the piece, in part for its wildness and unpredictably. Conrad is loath to name a favorite piece to play. In his own composition, he says, he feels the strongest influence from Russians Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, although more and more, he says he feels American influences such as John Adams.

Yes, Conrad composes, and he never put down the violin. Although piano is his focus, he has booked some concerts where he will play a piano concerto and a violin concerto. It presents a wide-open realm of possibilities for his adult career, with one thing for certain: “Music has always been a part of my life. I don’t even know what my life would be like without music.”

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