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Café Concert: Conrad Tao

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The pianist and composer Conrad Tao seemed remarkably relaxed when he sat down at the Yamaha to perform his Café Concert at WQXR.

The calm demeanor might seem at odds with the heavy load Tao has been carrying. Having recently given a recital to a packed house at Le Poisson Rouge, on Tuesday, he inaugurates the Unplay Festival, a three-day event that he is organizing at Powerhouse Arena, a bookstore and art space in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Also on Tuesday, Tao releases "Voyages," his full-length debut album on EMI, a collection of his own music as well as pieces by Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Meredith Monk. By no coincidence, he also turns 19 that day.

Tao is the first to acknowledge the “incestuous cross-promotion” in the way events came together. “It happens,” he said, with a wry smile. “I must acknowledge that.” But after several years on the concerto-and-recital circuit – and now a student in the Juilliard-Columbia double-degree program – Tao is also at a point where he wants to explore bigger ideas around classical music and its place in society.

Tao has had a considerable past decade. A native of Champagne, Illinois, he gave his first recital at age four. At nine, he and his parents moved to New York and he began studying piano in Juilliard’s pre-college division with Yoheved Kaplinsky. Around the same time, he began composition lessons with Christopher Theofanidis, an in-demand composer who now teaches at Yale.

Tao signed with professional management and, by age 16, orchestras were calling, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and Detroit Symphony. Awards also poured in, including eight Ascap Morton Gould Young Composer Awards; a 2012 Gilmore Foundation Young Artist Award; and a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts recognition. Tao has studied the violin, has written pop songs and is currently working on a commission for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, about the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, slated to premiere in November.

Yet Tao clearly isn’t content with the post-prodigy treadmill and admits to a restless, oppositional streak. The Unplay Festival he said “is about what does music and do musicians occupy. I was interested in how I could find performers who are engaging in this act of ‘unplaying’ insofar as they’re dismantling certain basic traditional ideas of what it means to be a classical performer.”

Those performers will include Sideband (an ensemble using laptops and speakers), the violinist Todd Reynolds, the Face the Music Ensemble, Iktus Percussion and ThingNY, a multimedia ensemble. Programs will explore ideas of genre-blurring and the use of technology in performance (Tao himself has written music for piano and iPad). "Since so much of the intellectual process of music is unlearning what you take for granted to be true a lot of this is about applying this to my own practice of being a performer," Tao said of the festival's title.

Planning the festival has taken Tao some 18 months, during which time he's had to juggle his studies at Columbia, where he is pursuing a concentration in ethnicity and race studies. “It’s a lot,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easy to justify because I really love everything I’m doing and sometimes it’s harder. It is ultimately about galvanizing all these different things.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: George Wellington; Text & Production: Brian Wise