Infusing New Vibrancy into the Oldies: Introducing Conrad Tao

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Conrad Tao
Photo by Lauren Farmer

by Jingxuan Zhang

Jack of all trades, yet master of all, 19-year-old From the Top alumnus Conrad Tao – pianist, violinist, and composer – can be pithily summed up as a thinker. “Thinker” is not the most titillating of words; however, it fits Conrad perfectly because he uses his artistry in the humblest way to do the biggest things. On the contrary, “intellectual” is too pompous for someone so plainspoken, and “visionary” too grandiose.  One can get a quick taste of what Conrad ruminates about by visiting the website for the UNPLAY Festival, a three-night event he organized using his Avery Fisher Career Grant and Gilmore Young Artist Award. In the WHY page, readers are assaulted by the question “What space does the musician occupy today?” Yeah, that is what he “thinks” about, dire problems faced by classical music.

It takes some real guts to ask that question, since it is such a sore spot in the classical music community. Attendance to classical concerts is becoming increasingly scarce, while Justin Bieber fills up sports stadiums to the brim with prepubescent youngsters without breaking a sweat. Conrad is fighting against the decline of classical music through his unique and thought-provoking concert programming. He said, “A concert is something more than just having a good time. I want to engage the audience and challenge them to change their thinking.” That statement underlies Conrad’s vision of a more passionately involved audience who reacts to the social commentary music can provide.

His goals were brilliantly articulated on the final night of his festival, themed Hi/r/stories. In his own words, Hi/r/stories “questions how history allows classical music to exert its power. Why is there currently a narrow conception of what classical music is for, among not only audiences, but also musicians and presenters?” His question is right on point. Classical music thrived in the 18th century, with giants like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all patronized by emperors and dukes. These powerful men had nothing to do other than wage war, walk in elegant gardens, and be dedicatees for historic compositions. But look at the modern industrialized society: On any Friday evening, in addition to that concert at Lincoln Center, one can go clubbing, see a Yankees game, watch Game of Thrones, or do homework (God forbid). Maybe the poor guy is too tired after eight hours of work to care!

Conrad is rethinking music’s role as a passive form of entertainment. Music has to evolve with society by being attuned to the fickle tastes of the modern audience, and he’s had those ideas since he was 10, on his appearance on From the Top’s 107th show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: “I remember saying, ‘It’s 2004. We have cellphones and computers already, so we need some new music to go with that.’ I played my own composition on that show, and the support I got from the audience, in addition to From the Top doing such effective outreach, really inspired me to forge my own path and reach a wider audience.” He has come a long way since then. For UNPLAY, he compiled a very compelling narrative which heavily features the works of living composers, with guest artists who specialize in electronic and experimental music. In the program one can easily see the socially relevant compositions just by titles such as “Private Time,” “Violence,” “Endurance Test,” and “… like kites with no strings.

The first day of UNPLAY also ushered in Conrad’s debut album Voyages with EMI, which features works by Monk, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Tao himself. This album is a microcosm of his journey as a musician, and he hopes listeners can derive their own journeys by listening. The inspiration for this album conforms to his unique perspective as an artist: “The process of travel is oftentimes seen as linear, from A to B. For me, it is not about the beginning and the end, but the space in between; the process itself is meaningful.” At only 19, Conrad has only started his “voyage,” but it has already been riddled with milestones. With a bar so high, it is time for him to “think” about what he can possibly accomplish next.

To check out selections from his festival and debut CD, visit http://www.youtube.com/conradtao. For more information on Voyages, visit http://www.smarturl.it/ConradTaoVoyages.

From the Top Alum Nathan Chan Spreads the Gospel of Music

Nathan Chan, 19

 by Jingxuan Zhang, From the Top Alumni Correspondent

Talking with Nathan Chan is a jarring reminder that I can still have hope in humanity – all I hear about is love, acceptance, and community. And String Theory, a five-cello student ensemble Nathan founded in the autumn of 2011, is the fruit of that passion. An undergraduate studying in the prestigious joint program between Columbia University and The Juilliard School, 19-year-old Nathan Chan made his appearance on From the Top on Show 207 in Stanford, California in 2009. There are very few classical musicians willing to venture into the world of popular music, but in an age which has witnessed classical music’s losing steam to the mainstream, Nathan decided to reach a wider audience with String Theory’s innovative arrangements of hits such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Viva la Vida.”

Because String Theory performs works newly arranged by members of the group, the pieces do not find their final form from the start. Thus, all rehearsals demand creativity, flexibility, and teamwork, or as Nathan puts it, “verbal rearrangement.” To ensure the quality of music, they carefully engage with it by polishing the texture and refining musical layers during the run through, working and editing along the way. And the group’s commitment to the caliber of output is just a microcosm of its mission to engage more people and share their passion for music. Nathan says, “Playing [in String Theory] has taught me to be an open thinker in terms of being a musician. I’m beginning to understand what modern audiences are looking for and enhance classical music with that knowledge.”

Nathan embraces what are now perceived as different categories of music, transcending the boundaries between classical and popular: “We make it so that all kinds of music are accessible to as many people as possible, so that music becomes less exclusive, and more community-oriented.” And isn’t the exclusivity of classical music why popular music is, well, popular? Behind the formidable fence of concert halls and suited attires, the younger generation has been estranged from centuries of tradition. Nathan is actively trying to break down barriers and invite the modern audience into his world of music without losing musical integrity. On his YouTube page, one can see Bach cello suites juxtaposed to Coldplay or The Swan neighboring Libertango. This diversity allows the audiences who enjoy mainstream to expose themselves to classical and vice versa. For Nathan, his YouTube channel’s contents are not merely video recordings, but continuations of live performances, for they continue to give music and spread joy to those who want it, anytime. As he phrases it, “Social media is a key way to reaching out to as many people as possible.”

He has learned a lot in this journey, which in a way started with his appearance on From the Top: “What impressed me most is how From the Top emphasized that music is really a community, and one has to foster it.” And foster he has. Quickly becoming one of the most popular student ensembles at Columbia University, String Theory established itself as one of the best and most popular ensembles on campus, being invited to collaborate with various campus organizations and student composers. Nathan Chan and String Theory surely have earned their name as “Columbia University’s Premiere Cello Ensemble.”

For more information on Nathan, visit nathanchancello.com. Listen to his musical journey at youtube.com/nathanchancello. And finally, follow him at twitter.com/nathanchancello.

Update: Nathan recently performed on behalf of From the Top at two events in Aspen: an event hosted by From the Top radio sponsor U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management at the Aspen Ideas Festival; and a From the Top soiree in conjunction with a radio taping at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

But I Don’t Like to Write!

By Jingxuan Zhang

Since this is my first blog post upon the esteemed pages of the Green Room Blog, I thought it fitting to write about, well, writing. I hated it. There you go, the end… except not really: That was just a hook. I learned that particular technique in an SAT class, in addition to discovering my love for writing – who said love cannot be cultivated?

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Jingxuan Zhang
Show 199: El Paso, Texas

To know Jing the writer, it is of utmost importance to know Jing the musician. My parents asked what instrument I wanted to play when I was five with the accordion in mind, in order to speed along the development of my intellect. To their financial despair, I stubbornly insisted on one of the two instruments I knew, “Piano!” So buy one they did, and thus started the lessons. I have come a long way from my first teacher in China who slapped my hand every time she found its position distasteful to my current professor at Juilliard. But no one wants to hear about such steadfast love. Where’s the Hollywood drama? In my case, maybe Bollywood would be more appropriate.

Compared to my deep obsession with music, my relationship with writing was like a lukewarm arranged marriage. It all started in ninth grade, when the SATs loomed overhead for all students diligent, Asian, or otherwise. For a Chinese student like me, one can safely assume that the parents would meddle copiously in the SATs. As a burgeoning pianist who studied with a much sought-after professor at Jacobs School of Music in Indiana University’s precollege program, I did not even consider an academic career path. That was particularly difficult when fantastic visions of performing in Carnegie Hall thrashing about like Lang Lang played through one’s thoughts like a film reel. My parents, though, were more realistic, for they knew that the combination of skill and serendipity necessary for breakthrough is too risky without a backup, which defaulted to academics excellence. Do not think for one single moment that I was a slouch in high school. To list all my accomplishments would be impossibly futile; however, a quick synopsis is manageable: I graduated sixteenth in a class of over a thousand students, a record that can almost guarantee placement in any college I wanted when combined with the slew of honors under my belt as a musician.

My dear parents just wanted to secure my place at the top, so when they heard from an acquaintance at the end of ninth grade that a certain Dr. Zhang who taught a weekly SAT class helped his daughter get into Duke University, they suffered through oceans of fire and various other hardships to get me signed up. I was not too pleased with the arrangement, since the weekend classes took precious time away from the keyboard. Furthermore, this awkward ménage a trois I caught myself in between music and writing was not exactly morally upright.

As expected, Dr. Zhang loved me. I was almost legendary in the Asian community, with my accolades disseminated like wildfire among parents as the paragon of excellence. But that did not stop him from abhorring my writing. I still remember his utter condemnation, “This is childish.” I could not say I was particularly distraught, as I did not care much about writing, but that he found in me some imperfection irked me to no end. Dr. Zhang was no fool. He knew I did not care about writing; however, he also knew my weakness: music. Under his guidance, I insidiously began to realize the parallels between the arts of writing and music. The correlation was so blatant that it shamed me to not have noticed earlier. Words and sentences are like the notes and phrases of music. The theme of an essay is like the harmonies that holds the music together. Finally, the same meticulous attention to detail a writer must practice, all the while without losing sight of the “whole picture,” ignited my love for this art.

I was exposed to From the Top when I played on Show 199 in El Paso, Texas, as a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist the summer after ninth grade. Ironically, fate has brought things full circle. Having discovered this show and writing concurrently, with love and hate respectively, I am now honored to unite them as the new Summer Contributor to the Green Room. Ultimately, I have derived an important life lesson from this journey: a relationship with both music and writing is not necessarily a ménage a trois.

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