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Perhaps the Utah Symphony should consider listing Conrad Tao on its roster. He has soloed with the orchestra each of the past four seasons and he's still just 19 years old.
The American pianist made his first visit to Abravanel Hall in 2010 (when, a seasoned pro at age 16, he pinch-hit for an ailing Horácio Gutiérrez), and it has been exciting to witness his growth as an artist. This weekend, he's playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, an ideal vehicle for his remarkable talents.
Tao's fluid, confident phrasing meshed with Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer's bracing tempos to exhilarating effect. Concerto performances sometimes take on the quality of chamber music, when the soloist seems to click with one particular section or player in the orchestra; on Friday night, it was principal percussionist Keith Carrick whose rapport with Tao riveted the listener's attention. A note to Saturday's audience: Don't be embarrassed if you can't resist applauding at the end of the concerto's first movement.
The personable Tao dazzled the crowd again with his encore, Rachmaninoff's Op. 23, No. 2 Prelude.
Fischer then led the orchestra in an energetic performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. This is one of those "go big or go home" pieces, but it still offers room for subtlety, and the Utah Symphony's woodwind principals flutist Mercedes Smith, oboist Robert Stephenson, clarinetist Tad Calcara and bassoonist Lori Wike, with an assist from Bruce Gifford on horn delivered. George Brown's sensitive timpani playing also impressed.
The concert opened with Chen Qigang's wonderfully picturesque "Wu Xing (The Five Elements)" in observance of the Chinese New Year. Fischer closed the night with the slow movement from Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony in a tribute to the late conductor Claudio Abbado, with whom he played for 11 years during his time as principal flutist in the Chamber Orchesta of Europe.
Music of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Qigang Chen.
With • Conductor Thierry Fischer and pianist Conrad Tao.
When • Reviewed Friday, Jan. 31; repeats Saturday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
Running time • Two hours, including intermission.
Tickets • $23-$60 at http://www.utahsymphony.org.
Learn more • Fischer will chat about the music with Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan onstage at 7 p.m.