As a grand finale to the 2012-13 season, the Spokane Symphony’s music director, Eckart Preu, conceived the idea of a three-concert festival featuring all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos, along with briefer concertos by other composers, performed by a team of two pianists. It was an exciting idea and ticket sales were brisk, but it seemed doomed when one of the artists canceled.
As evidenced by the sold-out houses Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Spokane’s Beethoven Festival rose from its ashes thanks to the dedication of Preu and his board and the extraordinary talents of Conrad Tao, who performed all five masterpieces himself in just two concerts at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
The pianist brought a broad range of skills and gifts to the task, which made the enterprise a richly rewarding – indeed, unforgettable – musical experience, rather than the circus trick it might have been.
Tao is not only an acclaimed pianist, but also an accomplished composer. He approached each work as a composer might, as a complete and coherent utterance, in which each phrase advanced the argument of the whole. To accomplish this through five enormous works requires terrific focus and stamina, both psychological and physical, which Tao possesses in abundance.
Tao played the lengthy and difficult Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15 without a flaw: not a missed or imperfectly struck note, not a careless or routine phrase, not a poorly voiced chord. The orchestra supported him admirably. Beethoven’s marvelous writing for winds was well-voiced by that section of the orchestra. Especially noteworthy was principal oboe Keith Thomas’ fantastical cadenza in the final moments, which brought a radiant smile to the face of the soloist, as well as to many in the audience.
Saturday’s program concluded with one of the jewels of Beethoven’s middle period: Concerto No. 4 in G. Here the Romantic warmth of the orchestral playing perfectly matched the character of the piece, and Tao responded with playing of enormous range and brilliance.
However, those qualities of tenderness, even fragility inherent in the Fourth Concerto were slighted in Tao’s energetic, positivist approach. There seemed to be an edge of nervous energy that, especially in the crucial second movement, kept him from realizing completely the compassionate nature of the piece.
On Sunday afternoon, however, that aggressiveness vanished and was replaced with the patience and serenity of a seasoned master.
This was evident in the second movement of Concerto No. 3 in C minor, which opened the program. Tao’s statement of the theme was of angelic purity and deep concentration. The orchestra, whose playing could be somewhat unfocused and generalized the night before, locked into the soloist’s rapt concentration. They seemed to fuse into a single voice articulating Beethoven’s great themes of human liberty, compassion and joy.
For the remainder of the afternoon, one heard nothing but artistry of the highest order. Preu and his colleagues perfectly captured Beethoven’s tone and accent in every phrase. Their contribution to the “Emperor” Concerto in E flat was consistently exalted. Such playing inevitably called to mind the orchestra’s benefit concert last November, at which their rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony caused many in the audience to cry with joy.
Tao offered two encores, one on each day. On Saturday, he showed his mastery of the coruscating last movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s steely Sonata No. 7. On Sunday, Tao reduced the audience to dumb wonderment with a performance of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 that declared him to be among the super-virtuosi of history. Such playing is the stuff of legend.
You may hear the first of these marvelous concerts on KPBX tonight and the second May 20. I urge you not to miss them.
Incidentally, those who wish to help Tao celebrate his 19th birthday must wait until June.