Conrad Tao can do it all.
Saturday with the Boulder Philharmonic, the talented young pianist will be the soloist for Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. And he will play in the orchestra. And he composed one piece on the program.
“And he could sweep up afterwards, too,” Michael Butterman, the orchestra’s music director, says with a laugh.
“When one thinks of composers in Beethoven’s days, they were very often the performers as well,” he continues. “So here we have somebody doing something in a way that harkens back to that earlier time.”
Tao says he always knew that he wanted to compose as well as play.
“Even as soon as I was plunking out melodies at the piano I started wanting to just play my own [pieces],” he says. “I was improvising from a very, very, very early age. I guess in a way it just seemed so logical to me.”
He began music lessons on a 1/32- sized violin when he was 2 1/2, but he had been picking out tunes on the piano from about 18 months. Now at age 20, he is studying piano and composition in the Columbia University/ Juilliard School joint degree program and serving as artistin-residence with the Dallas Symphony.
Getting started so early, Tao has gotten used to being called a prodigy, although he says he doesn’t really like it.
“I think that label robs you of a certain personhood,” he says. “There’s only so much I guess I can do about that. At this point you have to accept that it’s just an easy way of describing [someone].”
As a pianist, Tao has an extremely wide repertoire, including not only Beethoven concertos, but Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Bach, Elliot Carter, Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Gershwin, Stravinsky — “Yeah, it’s quite across the board,” he says. “Right now, I’m at a point where I feel like there are massive holes in what I know and what I’m familiar with, so I want to fill in as many of those gaps that I have. It’s a voraciousness that I definitely associate with youthfulness. I’m still in this place where I welcome any opportunity to expand.”
Before the Beethoven concerto, Tao will expand into the prominent orchestral piano part for Darius Milhaud’s jazzy ballet score Creation du Monde (Creation of the world). One of several pieces on the program inspired by creation legends, Creation du Monde is based on African folk mythology. The score was written in the early 1920s.
“This was the time of Josephine Baker in Paris and a fascination with ‘Le Jazz Hot,’” Butterman says. “It was one of Milhaud’s first forays into the world of jazz. He made a trip to New York and went to Harlem and some jazz clubs in and around the city and was amazed by the musical language and the instrumentation that he saw.”
The jazz influence is obvious right away, as the score opens with a solo on saxophone — which replaces the viola in the string section. The percussion part is derived from the drum sets Milhaud heard in New York, and there are obvious jazz influences in the melodies and the syncopated rhythms.
Tao the composer is represented by Pangu, an orchestral piece inspired by another creation legend.
“It’s effectively a god sleeping in an egg and waking up and separating the egg into the sky and the earth,” Tao says. “He dies after the sheer effort of this separation, and his body becomes rivers, mountains, and all these other fabulous geographical features of the earth.
“I think it’s a fabulous creation story. I had a lot of fun writing the piece.”
The score is descriptive in a general way.
“Film music was a point of reference, because there was a cinematic aspect to the story I was going to tell,” Tao says. “For me [the style] is somewhat Bernstein adjacent, and that was a really fun sort of language and mode to be working in.”
Taking a cue from Pangu and Creation de Monde, the Boulder Phil has titled the concert “Creative Legends.” It will open with Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, about the Greek legend of the Titan who brought fire — and symbolically the creative impulse — to mankind.
Beethoven’s overture will be followed by a piece inspired by the Biblical story of creation: “Chaos” from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. Lacking the melodic and harmonic elements that Haydn would normally use, “Chaos” is famous to musicians as an example of music that is effective while avoiding the usual elements of musical order.