Only after 16-year-old Conrad Tao blazed through Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Thursday did he confront the obvious: “Hi, everybody; I’m not Yuja Wang!” he said, right before offering a stunning performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 as an encore.
It was a charming moment. Tao replaced Wang, a Chinese pianist eight years his senior, after she canceled due to illness.
An American from Urbana, Ill., Tao thrilled the Segerstrom audience. In a dashing account of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody,” his attacks were crisp, with rhythmically tricky high-velocity passages cleanly articulated. Throughout, there was a sense that Tao was having fun. Always in motion, he shadow-played on his lap during short orchestral interludes.
In Variation 18, with its big lyrical tune, the pianist became a bit deliberate, and the orchestra pushed and pulled the melody around. Even so, Tao avoided sentimentality, his concentration drawing us into the composer’s spare and witty work as few virtuosos of any age can do.
The concert began with St.Clair’s moving account of Bohuslav Martinu’s “Memorial to Lidice.” Martinu wrote the piece to honor and mourn the people murdered and displaced by the Nazis in that Czechoslovakian town during World War II.
After intermission, the conductor returned with an emotionally intense reading of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The performance was one of deep commitment and urgency. The Largo, one of the composer’s most profound, elegiac statements, was shattering. St.Clair and company didn’t stint on the more extrovert drama either. The thrilling Allegro finale found the orchestra -- especially the brasses -- in top form.
-- Rick Schultz
Photo: Conrad Tao. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times