Conrad Tao - Juilliard Recital - Rachmaninoff Prelude Op 23, No. 2 in B-Flat Major
Conrad Tao stole the show twice on Saturday, May 2, at Symphony Hall. He tore the place apart with the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 and then upstaged that monster with the conclusion of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 as an encore.
It is difficult for a pianist on the world stage to stand out from the pack but Tao does. His playing leaps off the stage and charges down your ears like a conquering army of musical notation.
Shostakovich continues to grow in stature with the San Diego Symphony and on this night his music had pride of place when it came to artistic merit.
I was ready to leave at intermission. There was nothing Carmina Burana could bring that would supersede what Tao did on the piano. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy because, as expected, Carmina Burana was just okay. I should say that had everything to do with the music itself and not as much the performance.
The orchestra was a battle axe. They tore the lid off of Orff’s popular piece. Rhythmically it was tighter than a drum. I’m guessing the rhythms of Carmina Burana felt like a paid vacation after the intensity of Nixon in China.
The Master Chorale was the Master Chorale. That is to say, they are a serviceable group of amateur singers dedicated to singing the great choral masterpieces. The altos had a line that was completely lovely. It was stunning. The tone was warm and the line legato and the pitch true. Bravi, altos.
If the vocal soloists had been of the same caliber as Conrad Tao then we would have had a special evening. As it was we had a good, solid performance.
The tenor solo was sung by countertenor Ryan Belongie. Belongie has a beautiful voice but the solo wasn’t written for a countertenor and doesn’t fit the voice of a countertenor. If the symphony wanted to cast a countertenor to sing the soprano solos then okay, that would be interesting. I would have loved to hear Belongie sing the soprano part.
The tenor solo is about a swan which has been killed and is being roasted before being eaten.
Let’s think about roasting and eating a swan — an activity that is currently illegal in most countries around the world. Killing a swan has never been smiled upon — just ask Parsifal. The sanctity of the swan goes all the way back to Greek mythology where they were bringers of light and associated with Apollo.
Could there be some strong symbolism at play here in the Carmina Burana? The swan, as a medieval heraldry symbol, represented perfection beauty and grace. It is also associated with poetry and music and indicative of light, love, sincerity, and perfection.
Could it be that these things have been sacrificed in order to fill the belly of the gluttonous cleric, of whom the original Carmina Burana texts are so critical? Can we take it a step further? What if this isn’t just beauty and grace being consumed by the indulgent appetite but it is also light, love, sincerity and perfection following the digestive tract and being transformed into a steaming pile of refuse to be cast onto the street from the window of the tavern when the bucket is emptied?
That’s a strong image.
The interpretation on Saturday was more of a tongue-in-cheek caricature of a hapless swan complaining about being eaten. It’s a valid and charming approach but somewhat juvenile.
The baritone solos were sung by Tyler Duncan. It was quite a pretty voice but lacked some heft. I loved the spirit of his singing. There was a joy and a sense of humor about it that I found to be infectious. He appeared to be enjoying the music even when he wasn’t soloing.
Soprano Celena Shafer tricked me. For most of the evening it looked as though she didn’t want to be there — as if she were the designated driver for all the drunks at the tavern. Yet when her part came she presented a fully developed character with hopes and dreams and triumphs and defeats.
What impressed me the most about Shafer was her middle range. I found myself wanting to hear her sing Nellie Forbush or Eliza Doolittle. When I looked at her bio I did see that she played Johanna from Sweeney Todd with Chicago Lyric. I love that but it takes us in an entirely different direction toward my desire to hear legit musical theater sung without amplification and with a real live orchestra that isn’t mic’d.