CAMBRIDGE — One day in March 2020, Conrad Tao sat down at the piano to play John Adams’s thrumming “China Gates,” forgetting he had left a set of sound-altering magnets inside the instrument. The strange collided with the familiar as several notes — those affected by the magnets — added hollow, metallic accents to the driving minimalist piece. “China Gates,” Tao said onstage at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall Wednesday night, is “insistently not written as a prepared piano piece.” But it is a powerful one.
It seems impossible that Tao, 27, is only now making his Celebrity Series solo debut. Within the past few years, the New York-based pianist and former child prodigy has firmly established a presence in and around Boston: taking on the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport with the JCT Trio in summer 2019, sliding in last minute with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in the same year (and returning a year later for a virtual recital from the Linde Center), and filling a black-box stage with sand at New England Conservatory for “More Forever,” a Celebrity Series-presented collaboration with dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher. He also streamed a solo Celebrity Series recital from GBH’s Fraser Performance Studio in April. The road to the live solo debut has not been very long, but it has been eventful.
From the stage, Tao explained that most of the pieces he’d selected were his favorites during the shutdown, when he both took comfort in familiar pieces and devoted time to expanding his scope as an improviser. Curiosity characterizes all he does; he clearly respects the traditions of classical music but treats it as a living organism, not a museum piece. This is how “China Gates” became a piece for prepared piano with a fresh improvisational prelude, prompted by the sounds of wherever the magnets decided to attach. This is also how a Bach chorale prelude, “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein,” seamlessly transitioned into a spiky contrapuntal spontaneous creation.
That questioning attitude does not limit itself to improvisation. “Keyed In,” an original work co-commissioned by Celebrity Series, was written from a place of pure curiosity about the capabilities of the piano to create illusory melodies out of overtones. The pianist’s take on Robert Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (”Scenes from Childhood”) explored the depths of nostalgia in the simple scores, conjuring a sweet tableau before a little slowdown or a shift in dynamics or attitude turned the scene into a faded photograph. “Träumerei” (”Dreaming”), one of Schumann’s most beloved and well-traveled melodies, falls right in the middle of the 13 scenes, and Tao treated it as a bittersweet intermission, closing the theoretical photo album to reveal the wistful adult looking into the past. (By that time, some of the audience was probably feeling the same way as well — the scenes are piano-lesson staples for intermediate to advanced students, and I probably wasn’t the only one whose ears pricked up at hearing a song long forgotten.)
“Keyed In,” the penultimate piece, exploded out of the piano with an avalanche of low notes in the right hand and a steady pulse in the left. Tao rattled and crashed around the keyboard before settling on a sustained C#, in a summoning ritual that conjured a phantom note an octave and a half up; it seemed to sing from the walls until it materialized under Tao’s hand, as the piece’s final sound. Pickman Hall’s speakers weren’t up to the task of the piece’s tremendous volume, however, and the snap-crackle-pops coming from the ceiling-mounted boxes were an unwelcome intrusion.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 fared better, as Tao raged through the first movement with bristling attacks on the keys. The frenetic scherzo slowly diminished in energy, leading down to the piece’s nadir, with its pulsing single note that unfurled into a funereal minor chord. The final tune and its resultant fugue embodied determination in all its messy complexity, delicate counterpoint side by side with major chords that fell like boulders.
Tao often prepares bespoke encores based on the venue, the repertoire, or the day, and as Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, he opted for jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s homage to Schumann, “Pastorale,” inspired by dreams the HIV-positive composer had during a two-month coma. Before his tender rendition of the piece, Tao pulled out his phone to read a 1988 “nursery rhyme” by cartoonist M.J. Goldberg in an AIDS benefit anthology that the pianist had encountered on Instagram that day. From one pandemic to another, history rhymed.
Dec. 1. At Pickman Concert Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston.