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Charlotte Symphony Orchestra makes us consider Beethoven’s genius anew

Jan 11, 2020

By Lawrence Toppman
The Charlotte Observer

BBC Music Magazine just gave a five-star review to Conrad Tao's "American Rage" album, praising performances of 20th-century pieces that are "craggy and dissonant," "rise to a fury" and "sound an alarm." His previous releases for Warner Classics, "Pictures" and "Voyages," consist of 20th-century music with one exception.

Yet here he is at Knight Theater, playing Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto 209 years to the week after its first private performance. He rides this warhorse like a revolutionary leading us into battle against preconceptions.

Not for the 25-year-old Tao are traditions of majesty or elegance. His interpretation with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra makes us rethink the piece end to end, reminding us Beethoven was the pathway to both the free-flowing introspection of Chopin and the pyrotechnics of Liszt. (Chopin was born 10 months before the "Emperor" premiered, Liszt nine months afterward.)

Music director Christopher Warren-Green has served a Beethoven sandwich, with Sibelius' single-movement Seventh Symphony between the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and the concluding concerto. Or not quite "concluding:" Tao finished Friday with a transcription of a movement from a Bach cantata.

Beethoven's familiar gravity came through in the overture, which had moments of tenderness and sweetness as does "Fidelio," the opera where it was inserted between acts in the 19th century.

Then came Sibelius' last symphony, which rolled over us like a storm front interrupted by wisps of sunlight breaking through somber clouds. Warren-Green introduced the piece by saying it was close to his soul, and the musicians fulfilled his dramatic intentions. They could not have done it so much justice 10 years ago, nor could they have followed the mercurial Tao with such assurance.

He revealed his intentions in the opening phrases, alternating powerful sprays of notes with sudden rubato. Tao also composes, and he deconstructed the "Emperor" with a composer's mind.

Beethoven famously broke hammers and strings to produce masses of sound, and Tao's forte attacks in the first movement showed how that might have happened. Yet he didn't make effects just for showmanship, and each wave of notes seemed spontaneous.

Most pianists find mystery or serenity in the adagio; his version nipped along at a brisker pace, like the musings of a restless mind looking for a way forward. Tao found his breakthrough in the third movement, which became a whirling, stomping dance akin to the peasants' post-storm celebration in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

That movement had interludes of quiet, too, but true calm followed only in the contemplative, slow passage from Bach. We left feeling peaceful (if worn out) and rethinking Beethoven's genius anew and how often does that happen?

Read the full review here.