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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.

After several curtain calls, Venzago coaxed Tao into an encore, a brilliantly colored scene from Stravinsky's "Petrushka."

The evening's major work was a fresh and lively performance of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4. Venzago expertly shaped this compact symphony and drew a lovely, smooth sound from the Utah Symphony strings; the contrasting sections in the Scherzo movement came off especially well. Concertmaster Ralph Matson had some stylish solos in the second movement.

Two short works by Jean Sibelius, "Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island" and "Finlandia," opened the concert.

Catherine Reese Newton is a music critic. Contact her at or 801-257-8616. —

Utah Symphony

P Rousing Rachmaninoff and stylish Schumann make for a well-balanced concert.

With • Conductor Mario Venzago and pianist Conrad Tao

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City

When • Reviewed Friday; repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday

Running time • About 2 hours, including intermission

Tickets • $20 to $90