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#BPOinPoland: Interview with Conrad Tao

This week marks the beginning of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s #BPOinPoland adventure – its first international tour in 30 years. The orchestra will be traveling throughout Poland performing at a variety of venues. The main event will be their performance at the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw on March 20.

One of the musicians performing with the BPO is concert pianist and composer, Conrad Tao. Tao was a musical prodigy who began playing piano at the tender age of 18 months. His talents as a concert pianist, composer, and artistic leader have earned him numerous awards and accolades, and he has also curated and produced his own music festival in Brooklyn, blending classical musical and digital art. He has released several albums featuring his own compositions side-by-side with classics of the repertoire.

Tao will be performing Gershwin’s Concerto in F as part of the #BPOinPoland tour. He performed with the BPO in 2015 and they are excited to have him joining them abroad. Buffalo Rising had the opportunity to do a quick Q&A with Tao to learn more about his career.

BR: Can you share some background on yourself as an artist?

CT: The usual story, which feels like mythology to me since I don’t remember any of it, is that I started playing the piano at 18 months of age. We had a piano in the house because my sister (five years my senior) was taking lessons with a community piano teacher, and the story goes that I started playing nursery tunes at the piano by ear. But my question has always been: who put me on the bench? There must have been someone who initially dropped me on the bench, because there’s no way that I got up there myself. So that’s the story, and the only reason I know (besides hearing the story told) is that we have these old dated VHS tapes from that time, where I’m practicing Mary Had a Little Lamb one note at a time, and if I missed one note, I would go back and do it from the beginning until I could do the whole thing without error. Which is, as I like to say, roughly the same amount of discipline I still have today!

Beyond the origin story, I think that something that is important to everything I do now is that I started learning how to read music when I was three years old, and pretty soon after, I tried to figure out how to write music as well. And that desire to explore what it meant to make music or write music myself (music that was my own), that desire emerged really early on: it just seemed really logical. If discovering music is like discovering a vocabulary, then for me the natural next step was trying to express myself with that vocabulary, and trying to make new things out of that vocabulary.

I was fortunate enough to start listening to lots and lots of different kinds of music through the guidance of my composition teacher, Christopher Theofanidis. We started working together when I was 9 years old, and he pretty quickly started just bringing in lots of music; lots of different recordings, and lots of different music. Stylistically, it was pretty much all over the map, and so I started listening to a wide variety of music fairly early on: notated music, not notated music, popular music, etc. and so in a way that also became really important to me. Realizing the vast potential for expression in different kinds of musical approaches, different kinds of musical vocabularies, and different kinds of musical traditions.

BR: Can you tell us more about your experience organizing the Unplay festival in Brooklyn?

CT: So the festival in 2013, the Unplay festival (still the inaugural and only Unplay festival!) grew out of, I guess, a desire to try to begin to consolidate, or put together my diverse musical interests, both as a listener and as a player, and as a composer of course, in something resembling a little bit of a package. I wanted to put something together that could begin to articulate some of the questions I wanted to explore. So that was really the main crux of it: I had very specific ideas about how I wanted it to be organized, like I had themes in mind, and then I started thinking about who would be good to include.

The first night was Electronic music and Electroacoustic music. At the time I was really interested in the idea of ephemera, and I did (and still do) consider myself very much an internet child, a kid raised kind of on the internet. And so I wanted to have the evening devoted to Electroacoustic music, which is of course the kind of music that pre-dates the internet, but I wanted to design a program that felt reflective somehow of that primary mode of interaction with different kinds of music, which is what the internet was for me. So, it was (again) stylistically all over the map, and that was what it grew out of for me. It was interdisciplinary in nature, there were visual elements.

The second program was a consideration of canonization, because I was very curious about what a 21st century canon could sound like. As in, how we could begin canonizing a newer kind of music, like music written after 1920. That was a huge curiosity of mine at the time. Mainly because it grew out of the suspicion of the notion of canonizing, and so it wasn’t an actual declaration of a canon; it was, hopefully, a little bit of an interrogation of the idea of a canon. At least that was what my 18 year old brain was hoping it could be. And then the last program was called Hi/r/stories, and it was just music and social activism, and the overlap between music and social activism. So there was music by Rzewski, and a really fabulous program by the New York group thingNY; so performance art and social activism, and musical performance, all of it kind of wrapped together, because those boundaries don’t really make any sense to me, aside from just trying to organize things and trying to organize how we can talk about things.

So that was the goal: to create something that could begin the cohering of these questions, perhaps. The experience was really amazing. I was very shocked at how generous everyone was with their time, and I also was very intimidated by the whole process—but that’s probably healthy!

BR: You performed  with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 2015 – what did you enjoy about it?

CT: The last time I was in Buffalo was in 2015, and I performed John Adams’ piano concerto Century Rolls. So that’s always going to be a positive memory because it was fun to debut with an orchestra with a piece that wasn’t written like a hundred years ago. I remember the band as being really game and excited, and we had a lovely time putting that piece together. It was really fun! It’s always nice to play with an orchestra for the first time and have it be a piece that you really have to put together, and figure out logistically, and so I have nothing but positive memories.

BR: What are you most looking forward to about this trip to Poland?

CT: I’m not sure I will have time to do this, but I am somewhat selfishly really looking forward to exploring the electronic music scene and experimental music scene in Poland. I have friends who’ve toured in Poland who have told me about it, and there seems to be an interest in it. I don’t know that much about it except through word of mouth, but that’s enough to convince me to want to explore it further!

BR: Can you tell us more about the piece you’ll be performing on the tour?

CT: I will be performing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F on the tour, and I’ve been playing this piece now for several years. I feel as though Gershwin is kind of trying to prove himself in this work, in a specific way. It’s the first work he ever orchestrated entirely by himself, and it was commissioned specifically with that in mind, and it feels like a work where Gershwin is really deliberately contending with a large classical form. It has a very traditional piano concerto form: three movements, fast-slow-fast, and it has all these recognizable hallmarks of a piano concerto form. And so I think there’s an element of him really trying to stick within and execute a work within these boundaries, kind of like a capital P capital C piano concerto. But it’s also Gershwin, and Gershwin has a very inventive and original vocabulary. He also has an inimitable sense of melody, and a pop sensibility which marks him as one of the OG crossover composers, in a way, and it’s really interesting as a result. It’s mostly harmonious, but there are moments where I almost feel there’s a friction between his sensibility, and what he’s trying to stay within from a structural standpoint (because he’s really modeling the piece after a fairly conservative model of the piano concerto), and I find those moments of friction very interesting.

This content is part of a sponsored series in partnership with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.


Written by Sarah Maurer

Sarah Maurer

I moved to Buffalo to attend Canisius College in 2007 and began writing for Buffalo Rising as a journalism intern in 2010. Working with Newell and meeting numerous entrepreneurs, activists and everyday folks who were working to make their city better made a huge impact on my decision to stay here. After witnessing all the positive development and grassroots initiatives happening in neighborhoods throughout the city, I was inspired to pursue a term of service in AmeriCorps and a career in Buffalo's non-profit sector. I currently work in the housing department at the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of WNY and am excited to be a part of their ongoing efforts to revitalize the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood. I also volunteer as the project coordinator for Artfarms Buffalo. I continue to write for Buffalo Rising because I love having the opportunity to stay connected to those working toward positive changes for the Queen City.

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