Whether performing traditional concertos with the San Diego Symphony or introducing avant-garde repertory at La Jolla SummerFest, over the last few years the young American pianist Conrad Tao has impressed local audiences. A combination of formidable technique and unusual interpretive prowess has become his calling card, no doubt the reason his Friday program at The Conrad was sold out. As local presenters have discovered, filling all the seats during a continuing pandemic is far from a sure thing.Tao’s program, however, was not the standard solo piano recital like the performance he streamed online from his New York apartment in February of 2021 for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. For this La Jolla presentation, Tao appeared with the tap dancer Caleb Teicher in a program they titled Counterpoint. In The Conrad’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall, a concert grand shared center stage with a slightly raised square placed on the floor for Teicher. Sharing center stage was a sign of equality between the two performers, although in their onstage introductions, the men admitted that the expressive possibilities of a pianist at a concert grand exceeded those of a solo tap dancer.
I thought their most convincing combined performances were those of their own devising: a set of slightly jazzy improvisations presented at the beginning of the program and “Swing 2,” an excerpt from More Forever, an original larger work the duo conceived together. In these pieces, when Teicher reacted to a piano flourish from Tao and the duo continued in a kind of dialogue, this made artistic sense. Adding tap dance to standard musical repertory, however, struck me as superfluous and—at times—a distraction.
Take their opening and closing selection, the Aria from J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Does this gentle, haunting sarabande, which Tao presented with ineffable finesse, need a dancer to make its point? Or what did we learn about George Gershwin’s familiar Rhapsody in Blue, which Tao arranged as a piano solo and played with astounding athletic authority, by adding a dancer’s descant?
It is certainly the case that modern dance troupes take all sorts of standard musical repertory and choreograph dance to this music. But for them, the dance is the point: the dancers perform on stage and the music is either recorded and coming through speakers, or the instrumentalists are unseen down in the pit in front of the stage. I do not doubt that Tao and Caleb possess comparable training and ability in their respective disciplines, although I am not a dance critic, but placed cheek by jowl on center stage, the tools at their disposal proved unequal.
Tao played two solo pieces, aptly chosen dances excerpted from larger piano works. In Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone “Waltz” from Fünf Klavierstücke, Op. 23, he conveyed both the composer’s exquisite abstract detail as well as the graceful movement of a Viennese waltz. He gave a pellucid, suggestively sensuous account of the middle movement of Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine, a “Minuet.”
Teicher also offered two solo works: The Coles and Buffalino Soft Shoe, a classic early 20th-century tap dance, and David Parker’s Song and Dance, a clever piece of performance art that used tap dance to interpret Mozart’s evergreen Rondo “Alla Turca,” K. 331, in which Teicher also sang key phrases of the Rondo to remind the audience where they were in the piece.
The Conrad audience members gave their heartiest approval to this unusual duo. It will surprise me greatly if this combination becomes a trend.
This program was presented on February 24, 2022, on the Protostar Innovative Series of the La Jolla Music Society in the Conrad Prebys Center for the Performing Arts, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla, CA,