Tao vs. Steinway:
Audience Gets Knocked Out
Executive & Artistic Director Josh Worby recalls
Conrad Tao’s 2017 performance with the Phil.
Legend has it that Rachmaninoff could play a five note chord spanning an octave and a half…with his left hand. If you have a keyboard nearby give it a try: C-Eb-G-C-G. Glenn Gould huddled so low over the keyboard that he would have the legs of the bench sawed off by a few inches. Not only that, but to accommodate his swaying body as he played, the legs would be sawed at different heights so the bench could rock to-and-fro with him. André Watts possessed so much power in his playing that he would knock a piano out of tune after a few fortissimo chords.
I have no particular memory of anything weird when I first shook hands with Conrad Tao at our rehearsal for Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (back when handshakes were still de rigueur). His slight frame and his easy-going demeanor belied what I already knew to be a monstrously huge talent (and at an annoying young age to boot). But nothing in that brief exchange prepared me, or the orchestra, or conductor Andrew Litton, or the Steinway piano, for what was about to happen.
Tao and Litton exchanged a few quick notes with each other, just to get on the same page about a few sections of the work. Then the downbeat came, with its opening warning by the horns that you’d better buckle up for what is to come. The piano enters with a simple sequence of two-handed, ascending major chords. Did I say simple? Tao’s entrance was as if a meteor hit the rehearsal room. It wasn’t just his sheer power and volume, but the way every note within each chord sparkled individually. I heard Garrick Ohlsson do that once and wondered how it would be possible. I’m still wondering.
Tao’s body would also sway, left and right, forward and back, while his right foot would furiously jab at the pedal. A few minutes into the first movement I realized I was being treated not only to an entirely fresh-sounding “Tchaik 1,” but to a physicalized dance that Tao never choreographed, it just burst from his body as he played.
For the record, I am usually not a fan of soloists or conductors whose physical movements amount to what I perceive as attention-getting histrionics. They usually do so either at the expense of the music, or to make up for some level of musical depth they lack. One of my favorite conductors was Erich Leinsdorf, of whom we would only see a straight back and still feet. But oh, the music he made with an orchestra.
Tao’s physicalizing of the music, however, was pure and organic. It enhanced the sound and was inextricable to the interpretation. He could not make the sound he made if his body didn’t do what it did. And the sound was unforgettable.
We’re now 20 minutes into rehearsal and that jabbing right foot of his broke the pedal. Broke the pedal? It fell off. Rehearsal ground to a halt. Those are expensive minutes slipping away, so we literally used baling wire and duct tape to temporarily re-attach the pedal. It didn’t last long, but we kept doing that a few more times until the rehearsal was over. Conrad felt terrible and apologized for breaking the pedal. I told him to never change.
The dress rehearsal in the concert hall arrived the next day, with a new piano. Moments into the first movement, there was a loud BOINK. A string broke. You can break a string on a guitar or occasionally a violin, but the gauge and tension of a piano string is such that before it broke, the hammer that struck it would more likely break. Or you’d break your finger. Somehow Conrad managed to avoid both, and the piano had to be rolled off the stage and replaced with another.
Fortunately there were no further incidents of broken pianos. The concert arrived. During the first movement, the audience was blown back into their seats with a kind of slack-jawed, “what is happening” reaction. I knew the feeling. For the pastoral second movement Andantino, they leaned forward and hung on every amazing note. For the dazzling final few bars of the third movement Allegro, Tao’s rear end was completely off the bench, his hands a blur, the notes shimmering in the hall like the burst of a Fourth of July fireworks display. The audience erupted.
We shared a hug backstage, and Conrad again apologized to me for breaking a string earlier. I asked him if this ever happened to him before. He replied, “Not that string.”