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Conrad Tao [photo (c) Ruimin Wang]

Conrad Tao [photo (c) Ruimin Wang]

As a seasoned concertgoer, I have serious reservations about the ease with which today’s audiences indulge in standing ovations. As long as the pianist does not fall off the bench in performance, some individuals in attendance will automatically stand and loudly applaud.

But when the young American Conrad Tao finished his spectacular performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto with the San Diego Symphony Saturday (May 2) at the Jacobs Music Center, I was on my feet shouting. And when he offered as his encore a stunning account of the blistering final movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata, I was ready to jump up and down. I wanted to shower the stage with flowers—if only had I brought any to the concert.

Shostakovich, like Prokofiev, was a brilliant concert pianist and wrote his First Piano Concerto at age 26 (in 1933) to show off his virtuosity, which made the concerto a perfect vehicle for Tao. Not only did Tao demonstrate the technical prowess to slay every challenge on the page with consummate authority; he used his interpretive acumen to open up every dramatic subtlety the composer so cleverly hid beneath the shimmering façade of his athletic modernism.

In the concerto’s slow movement, for example, a sotto voce waltz both ghostly and enchanted, Tao evoked the composer’s mysterious qualities with his velvet touch and nuanced phrasing. He imbued even the most slender two-voice passage with electric expectation.

Have I failed to mention that Tao will be all of 21 next month? He is still a student (at Juilliard) and serves as the Dallas Symphony’s artist-in-residence. When he is not practicing, performing and recording, he composes. Two years ago the Dallas Symphony premiered his commissioned work “The World Is Very Different Now” to observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.

But back to the Shostakovich. Tao had stellar collaborators. Recently appointed Principal Trumpet

Micah Wilkinson [photo courtesy of San Diego Symphony]

Micah Wilkinson [photo courtesy of San Diego Symphony]

Micah Wilkinson gave the work’s trumpet obbligato the acerbic bite it needed; his timbre sounded bright, but never shrill. Associate Conductor Ken-David Masur drew an unusually supple shape and beautifully unified ensemble from the strings. Not incidentally, we were fortunate to enjoy again this season as guest concertmaster Frank Almond, fils, in that crucial post.

Masur matched Tao’s energy and supported him with elegant complicity. They chased through the last movement—Allegro brio—with the charge of a bunch of giddy Halloween pranksters, yet the effect was exhilarating because every note was precisely placed.

And the substantial Copley Hall audience roared its delight and approval.

Masur’s pairing of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto with Carl Orff’s Carmina burana could not have been improved upon. The both speak with that bravura 1930s modernism that birthed Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bartók’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta.

Carmina burana is no modest undertaking, and for once the San Diego Symphony assembled all the right players on the field for the big game. Under Music Director John Russell, the San Diego Master Chorale has acquired a new bloom on its sound, warm and communicative at various dynamic levels, and a unity within sections that has been heretofore elusive for this large chorus.

Each of the cantata’s vocal three soloists brought vibrant, fresh vocal allure and winning dramatic characterization to their roles, and the San Diego Children’s Choir offered a clean, well-disciplined contribution.

Keeping all of the cantata’s forces together is no small task, but Masur successfully fused Orff’s large,

Ken-David Masur [photo (c) Beth Ross Buckley]

Ken-David Masur [photo (c) Beth Ross Buckley]

boistrous orchestra with choirs and voices into that highbrow travelling circus for which Carmina burana is so beloved. Although Masur apparently likes to conduct the orchestra with just his hands, I noted that for a cantata this size, his right hand wielded the baton with clean authority.

In the cantata’s iconic opening chorus “O, Fortuna,” I began to worry about balance, because the sheer brilliance of the fortissimo orchestra easily overbalanced the Master Chorale’s 115 voices. But once through that movement, Masur corrected that imbalance. Kudos to the Chorale men for their rhythmic unity and clean diction in “Fortune plano vulnera” and their lusty energy in the carousing “In taberna.” Praise to the Chorale women for their heart-melting ardor in the Round Dance and their sweet-toned unison singing in “Floret silva.” Who could not be uplifted by the full choir’s radiant, cheery “Ecce gratum” or their sumptuous benediction on the lovers in “Ave formosissima”?

Baritone Tyler Duncan easily won over the audience with his coy depiction of the young swain or the tipsy abbot, and he found for each role an appropriate color in his well-trained, resonant voice. The top of his range sported a confident tenorial timbre, and he was able to slip in and out of his pleasing falsetto—a trick Orff indulged in with impunity—gracefully.

In his sole aria—the swan song of the swan roasting on the open spit—countertenor Ryan Belongie managed to wring all the regret and despair out of “Olam lacus” without compromising his clear, penetrating vocal line. The young soprano Celena Shafer soared gloriously through her high melismas in “Stetit puella” and “Dulcissime,” and her gorgeous cantilena for “In trutina” could not have been more resplendent. Flirting shamelessly with the baritone in her romantic songs, she was restrained only the conductor’s podium at the edge of the stage—the baritone was safely stationed on the other side.

Masur called forth robust colors from the orchestra’s brass choirs, and his telling orchestral fortes were meticulously balanced. Because Orff’s popular cantata is so much fun to sing and play, countless community choruses perform this with pick-up orchestras, and I would not gainsay such pursuits for a moment. But this performance executed at such a high professional level throughout reminded me how moving Carmina burana can be. It is much more than an entertaining musical circus!

This Jacobs Masterworks program was performed May 1 – 3, 2015, at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The next Jacobs Masterworks program, featuring violinist Ray Chen, will be presented May 15 – 17, 2015, in the same venue.

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Copley Symphony Hall
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Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar Christiane on May 7, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Great review and I couldn’t agree more, though I did not pick up on the imbalance in “O, Fortuna.”
    I did want to point out a typographical error in this review: “Masur called forth robust colors form the orchestra’s brass choirs…” I think you meant to type ‘from’ (vs. form) after colors.

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