Pianist and composer Conrad Tao has been dubbed a musician of “probing intellect and open-hearted vision” by The New York Times, who also cited him “one of five classical music faces to watch” in the 2018-19 season. Tao is a recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, and was named a Gilmore Young Artist — an honor awarded every two years highlighting the most promising American pianists of the new generation. He makes his Caramoor solo recital debut with works by Bach, Jason Eckhardt, and Schumann.
Conrad Tao, piano
Conrad Tao: Improvisation
J.S. Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903
Jason Eckardt: Echoes’ White Veil
Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
$20 Garden Listening tickets are available to those who would like to listen to the concert from the grounds. The best place to listen is from Friends Field, where guests will have to bring their own chairs/blankets. (As a reminder, guests will not be able to view the concert; this ticket is just for listening). This ticket is completely FREE for Caramoor Members. View the Caramoor Map.
Conrad Tao, piano
Conrad Tao has appeared worldwide as a pianist and composer and has been dubbed a musician of “probing intellect and open-hearted vision” by The New York Times. He is the recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and was named a Gilmore Young Artist — an honor awarded every two years highlighting the most promising American pianists of the new generation. As a composer, he was also the recipient of a 2019 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award, for Outstanding Sound Design / Music Composition, for his work on More Forever, his collaboration with dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher.
Conrad Tao has recently appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony. In 2020-21, he was the focus of a series of concerts and interviews with the Finnish Radio Symphony, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Hannu Lintu and Andrew Norman’s Suspend with Sakari Oramo, live on television. While most performances in the 20-21 season were canceled due to the COVID epidemic, he appeared with the Cincinnati Symphony and Louis Langrée, and returned to the Seattle Symphony to perform Beethoven Concerto No. 4. Further invitations included the National Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, New Jersey Symphony, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. His creation with Caleb Teicher, More Forever, commissioned by Works & Process at the Guggenheim, was planned for tours across the U.S., including Dance Cleveland and Fall for Dance, Toronto. Tao and Teicher’s latest collaboration for Works & Process, Rhapsody in Blue, kicked off the Guggenheim’s return to in-person performances and was lauded by The New York Times as “monumental.” The duo also gave the inaugural virtual recital of the season for Concerts from the Library of Congress.
In the 2019-20 season, Tao was presented in recital by Carnegie Hall, performing works by David Lang, Bach, Julia Wolfe, Jason Eckhardt, Carter, Rachmaninoff, and Schumann. He also made his debut in recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the L.A. Philharmonic presented him in works by Copland and Frederic Rzewski. Following his debut at Blossom Music Center, the Cleveland Orchestra invited Tao to perform at Severance Hall in a special program featuring music by Mary Lou Williams and Ligeti, and improvisation alongside pianist Aaron Diehl. After his debut with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, his return date was cancelled due to COVID; instead he was invited to give a streamed recital in their Great Performers series, where he played works by Felipe Lara, Crawford Seeger, Tania León, David Lang, and Beethoven.
In the 2018-19 season, the New York Philharmonic and Jaap van Zweden gave the world premiere of Tao’s work, Everything Must Go. The European premiere will take place in 2021-22 with the Antwerp Symphony. Other recent performances of his compositions include his own performance of The Oneiroi in New York with the Seattle Symphony, and Spoonfuls with the IRIS Orchestra. His violin concerto for Stefan Jackiw will be premiered in the 2021-22 season.
Other recent highlights include Tao’s L.A. Opera debut in the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s adaptation of Thomas Bernhard’s the loser. In Europe, he has been presented by the Swedish Radio Symphony in recital and in Andrew Norman’s Suspend alongside Susanna Mälkki; he also recently returned to the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, performing with Antonio Pappano.
A Warner Classics recording artist, Tao’s debut disc Voyages was declared a “spiky debut” by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross. Of the album, NPR wrote: “Tao proves himself to be a musician of deep intellectual and emotional means – as the thoughtful programming on this album…proclaims.” His next album, Pictures, with works by David Lang, Toru Takemitsu, Elliott Carter, Mussorgsky, and Tao himself, was hailed by The New York Times as “a fascinating album [by] a thoughtful artist and dynamic performer…played with enormous imagination, color and command.” His third album, American Rage, featuring works by Julia Wolfe, Frederic Rzewski, and Aaron Copland, was released in the fall of 2019.
Tao was born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1994. He has studied piano with Emilio del Rosario in Chicago and Yoheved Kaplinsky in New York, and composition with Christopher Theofanidis.
At a Glance
A master improviser, Bach possessed the ability to transmute his musical thoughts into sound almost at will. After listening to the Baroque master extemporize on the organ, the famous Dutch virtuoso Johann Adam Reincken declared, “I thought that this art was dead, but I see that in you it still lives.” Like many of Bach’s preludes, toccatas, and other free-form works, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is essentially a written-down improvisation. Conrad Tao, who is both a renowned composer and a concert pianist, carries on the tradition by prefacing his performance of Bach’s masterpiece with an improvisation of his own.
Jason Eckhardt, a one-time guitarist in a heavy-metal band, combines the spare, pointillistic textures of the early 20th-century modernist Anton Webern with elements of rock music and free jazz. Echoes’ White Veil was inspired by a prose poem by W. S. Merwin; its complex, multilayered verbal imagery is echoed in Eckhardt’s densely packed and often improvisatory-sounding score. In a similar fantasy-like vein, Schumann’s Kreisleriana reflects the contrasting personalities of the Romantic composer’s fictional alter egos: the impulsive Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius. The work takes its name from Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, the half-crazed brainchild of German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, Schumann’s literary soulmate.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903
About the Composer
To Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the most famous of Johann Sebastian’s musical sons, his father was “the most prodigious organist and keyboard player that there has ever been.” By the time of his death in 1750, the elder Bach’s towering stature as a virtuoso was universally acknowledged. Yet his only formal instruction on keyboard instruments came from his older brother Johann Christoph, who served as organist in the small central German town of Ohrdruf.
Young Johann Sebastian proved a quick study, and by age 18 he was established in his first professional post at Arnstadt. Thereafter his reputation grew by leaps and bounds. So, it seems, did his self-assurance. In 1717 he traveled to Dresden and challenged the renowned virtuoso Louis Marchand to a contest, which the Frenchman famously forfeited by skipping town. Thirty years later, on a visit to the court of the music-loving Frederick the Great in Potsdam, the aging composer improvised a dazzling set of fugal variations on a theme supplied by the king, which he later used as the basis of his musical offering.
About the Work
Bach wrote the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue sometime before his final move to Leipzig in 1723. The musicologist Christoph Wolff dates this perennially popular masterpiece to the end of his tenure in Weimar and hypothesizes that Bach premiered it in Dresden in 1717, on a recital celebrating his default “victory” over the absent Louis Marchand. If so, BWV 903 may have been one of the pieces Johann Mattheson had in mind that year when he referred to Bach for the first time in print as “the famous organist of Weimar” whose works “are certainly such as must make one esteem the man highly.” On the other hand, another Bach expert, Martin Geck, dates the D-Minor Fantasia and Fugue as late as 1720 and speculates that its dolorous chromaticism was an expression of the composer’s grief over the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara.
A Deeper Listen
Whatever “meaning” the notes may convey, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue definitely exemplifies the improvisatory prowess that Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, associated with his “unpremeditated fantasies.” The music modulates freely, unpredictably, and often daringly, illustrating Forkel’s observation that Bach “linked the remotest keys together as easily and naturally as the nearest; it was almost as if he were modulating in the inner circle of a single key.” The work’s opening section wends from one tonal center and scalar pattern to another by way of a dazzling variety of figurations and passagework. The Fantasia abounds in unexpected twists and turns; at times it sounds as if Bach himself is not quite sure where his fancy is leading him. The theme of the companion Fugue is a rising chromatic melody that returns throughout the piece, ingeniously embedded at different levels in the contrapuntal fabric and combined with music of contrasting character.
Echoes’ White Veil
About the Composer
As a guitarist playing in a heavy-metal band in the 1980s, Jason Eckhardt says he spent most of his teenage years “trying to be a rock star.” The pursuit of that elusive dream eventually took him to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he discovered the spare, radically compressed music of the early 20th-century modernist Anton Webern. By his own account, it was Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet — with its haunting quietude, pointillistic textures, and kaleidoscopic colors — that inspired him to become a composer. Yet that unexpected epiphany didn’t diminish Eckhardt’s youthful enthusiasm for rock music and free jazz. Instead, he set out to combine elements of all three styles in a hybrid language that marks what he considers his “core musical identity.”
About the Work
Composed in 1996, Echoes’ White Veil exemplifies this stylistic synthesis in its engaging blend of high-powered virtuosity, extended instrumental techniques, innovative sonorities, and improvisatory-sounding gestures. In reality, the score is meticulously notated, leaving nothing to chance and little (other than pedal effects) to the discretion of the performer. In its sheer density, of both sound and ideas, Eckhardt’s 11-minute composition relates to the so-called New Complexity movement that arose in the 1980s, partly in reaction to the reductive language of minimalism. Its legacy is a body of works characterized by multilayered textures, dissonant harmonies, fiercely complicated rhythms, and ultrafine gradations of timbres and dynamics.
Eckhardt acknowledges the influence of movement-oriented composers like Brian Ferneyhough and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but his music is equally beholden to the likes of John Coltrane and Led Zeppelin.
A Deeper Listen
Eckhardt has likened the genesis of his music to “being in a landscape during an evening thunderstorm. There is darkness, then a flash of lightning that illuminates the surroundings. For that fraction of a second I can ‘see’ everything I need to begin the piece. What follows is a painstaking reconstruction of that moment.” One such lightning flash came in the form of a prose poem titled Echoes by the late W. S. Merwin. A meditation on the interpenetration of past, present, and future — on “the echoes pouring through us out of the past” and the “sounds that rush away from us: echoes of future words”—Merwin’s poem culminates in the image of a child sitting beside a lake at nightfall, calling out into the silence and watching the sound of his embodied voice “running away from me over the water in her white veil.” Echoes’ White Veil captures that multilayered poetic imagery in an analogous complex of sound and silence, movement and stasis. Eckhardt’s sound world recalls Jay Parini’s description of Merwin’s poetry as a “kind of free verse” in which “he layered image upon bright image, allowing the lines to hang in space, largely without punctuation, without rhymes.” Notated without barlines, Echoes’ White Veil might be called the musical equivalent of free verse. Sonic images pile on top of one another in tightly packed, asynchronous layers, and spare, spectral sonorities are left hanging in space.
Kreisleriana, Op. 16
About the Composer
Schumann embodied the spirit of the Romantic era in his affinity for small-scale musical forms and lyrical utterances, his reliance on literary and other extramusical sources of inspiration, and the supreme value he placed on emotional freedom and spontaneity. Although he wrote four symphonies, several concertos, and even a single opera, his impulsive genius found its most characteristic expression in art songs and piano music, including a small body of chamber pieces for keyboard and strings. Schumann was an inveterate improviser at the keyboard, as one might suppose from the rhapsodic fluidity that characterizes his piano writing.
In fact, only a chronic hand injury prevented him from realizing his youthful ambition to be a concert pianist. Instead, he dedicated himself to creating a new kind of music for the piano, compounded of heroic virtuosity and poetic intimacy.
About the Work
In the seven years before his marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck in 1840, Schumann wrote some of his greatest piano works, including Kreisleriana, Carnaval, the First and Second Sonatas, and the C-Major Fantasy. Schumann was infatuated with Clara, a budding pianist and composer ten years his junior; her father’s implacable opposition to the match only made their hearts grow fonder. The eight fantasy-like pieces that constitute Kreisleriana take their cue from a fictional musician created by the great Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Like the emotionally unstable Schumann, Hoffmann’s Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler “was drawn constantly to and fro by his inner visions and dreams as if floating on an eternally undulating sea, searching in vain for the haven which would grant him the peace and serenity needed for his work.” Apart from its literary associations, Schumann’s work was a love letter in disguise. “Play my Kreisleriana sometimes!” he counseled Clara. “There’s a very wild love in a few movements, and your life and mine and many of your looks.”
A Deeper Listen
Of the two fictitious alter egos that Schumann invented for himself, the impulsive Florestan takes center stage in the first piece, marked “extremely animated,” with its fierce, almost violent torrent of racing triplets in looping patterns, while the more reflective Eusebius comes to the fore in the lyrical, placidly undulating theme of the second piece (to be played “very inwardly and not too quickly”). The contrast in character is accentuated by Schumann’s key scheme, which alternates more or less regularly between minor and major keys. But Kreisleriana is permeated with an ambiguity, rhythmic as well as tonal, that highlights the music’s phantasmagorical atmosphere. Particularly in the first and last pieces, the underlying pulse is upset or obscured by changing metrical patterns and displacements of the downbeat. In the closing bars of the work, the music’s driving, frenetic energy dissipates and Kreisleriana ends with a subterranean whisper.
– Harry Haskell
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