Sixteen-year-old American pianist Conrad Tao won several hundred Utah fans Friday night with his energetic performance of Rachmaninoff's beloved "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." In fact, Tao's dazzling finger work got an even noisier ovation from the Abravanel Hall crowd than superstar Hilary Hahn did with her splendid Tchaikovsky a couple of weeks ago.
Tao dove fearlessly into the devilishly virtuosic score, bringing an exciting momentum to this set of 24 variations. His account of the famed 18th Variation was refreshingly unsentimental (despite an audible wave of contented sighs that washed through the audience), but it was in the fire-and-brimstone passages that Tao was most impressive.
Guest conductor Mario Venzago led the Utah Symphony in a well-balanced accompaniment. Rhythms were crisp, even biting at times.