Keeping things fresh in a crypt

Pianist Conrad Tao (left) playing in a crypt under the Church of the Intercession in New York.
Pianist Conrad Tao (above) playing in a crypt under the Church of the Intercession in New York.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Pianist Conrad Tao has played top concert halls from an early age, but after the release of his latest album, he chose to perform for a casual crowd in a crypt under a New York church.

The 21-year-old, who has won some of classical music's most prestigious awards, says he is constantly on the lookout for new concert venues, from practice rooms to disused restaurants, and has previously incorporated abstract video into performances.

His goal is to make concerts engaging and fresh - qualities he believes that much of the classical music establishment, despite its persistent complaints about declining attendance, has ignored.

"The work doesn't have to be brand new, but hopefully the performance is new," he says.

"I never blame audiences - that's a rule of mine. If audiences come to concert halls for familiarity, I don't think it's their problem - I think we've kind of cultivated that relationship with them. I don't think that familiarity is all that sustainable and it's also, from a selfish perspective, just not that interesting to me."

Classical music leaders - especially in the United States, where there is less public financing than in much of Europe - have for years fretted over how to stem the greying of audiences. A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found a growing decline in US classical attendance, with more than one- third of the audience over age 65.

After the release of his latest album Pictures, Tao played in the damp intimacy of a crypt under the Church of the Intercession in Harlem.

When he celebrated his 19th birthday, he organised what he called the Unplay Festival in Brooklyn that explored the interdisciplinary nature of music, featuring animated video and a composition that couples piano and iPad.

Pictures takes as its heart Pictures At An Exhibition, the monumental piano suite by Modest Mussorgsky that musically captures images rekindled by the death of the composer's artist friend Viktor Hartmann.

Tao, a long-time New York resident who was born in Illinois, played his orchestral debut at age eight and has won prestigious awards including the Avery Fisher Career Grant.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'Keeping things fresh in a crypt'. Print Edition | Subscribe