For Conrad Tao, playing an instrument and composing always went hand in hand.
“It was always present, because it seemed like the natural thing to do, if I was going to be a musician,” Tao said Tuesday morning. “It seemed like the completely logical next step to playing a melody. The way I started playing piano was playing nursery tunes by ear, and the very next thing was to figure out what the logic of writing a one-note melody was.”
The first time Tao passed through Lexington, in 2008, his composition was something of an afterthought. The focus of his visit was as a 14-year-old pianist taking on Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto in c minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra” with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
Now he returns at age 22 and will be featured in Friday’s Philharmonic concert as the soloist in a performance of George Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F” and with his own “Pángǔ” to open the concert.
Tao wrote “Pángǔ” when he was 18, and he now speaks of the work like a fortysomething writer reflecting on his twentysomething dabbling.
“It’s very different from anything I’ve been writing recently,” Tao says. “It’s a Chinese creation myth, and I think the musical vocabulary for the piece draws a lot from Bernstein and theater music, not just in the harmonic language, but in the orchestrational language. I often describe ‘Pángǔ’ as a Chinese creation myth via Hollywood.”
Today, he describes his writing as more experimental, even involving Auto-Tune, jazz and improvisation.
“Working with electronics for me is a natural thing, from a sonic perspective,” Tao says. “Electronically processed sounds are just part of my vocabulary. I enjoy working with everything to the extent that it interests me.”
Writing, Tao says, is becoming a bigger part of his work, and it is a big part of his answer to the question: Why be a musician?
That might seem a strange question for a player whose family moved to New York before he was 10 to enroll him in the pre-college program at Juilliard. But Tao says that even though his career seemed to be pre-ordained at a young age, he questioned it.
“I think I always have to create reasons for myself to continue being a musician,” he says. “There is a moment where you have to analyze what you’re doing, and ask yourself why you’re doing it. At least, that was my experience with music.”
The answer reinforced both his composition and his love for performing new works.
“I really love music as just a strange place of expression,” he says. “Specifically within music, I love the capacity to challenge, I love the capacity to explore.
“I have been performing new music in some capacity for several years, and listening to experimental music has been part of my life since I was 10 or 11 years old, and in a lot of ways, I think that saved my relationship to music whenever it might have been in doubt. Whenever I thought playing classical music was a limiting thing, it was the music of contemporary composers that brought me back.
“There’s just something really exciting about music as a field of exploration, as a time-based art form. It presents opportunities to take audiences on a journey, to make audiences aware of where they are in time and space. I am not interested in escapism. I want to approach music in such a way that makes audiences aware of what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing.”
This does not mean he, by any means, eschews music of the past. He said he has been listening to a lot of Mozart recently, and he is tackling some of the warhorses of the past with fresh eyes.
And he is, of course, playing George Gershwin on Friday night, which takes us back to time and place, and how music can transport us.
“The music is so stylistic and referential, it becomes interesting,” Tao says of the Gershwin concerto. “If you think about the specificity of these periods and sounds being referenced, it’s a lot more fun. I really like early-20th-century dance hall, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley kind of sounds. The piano sound of that era was just intense.”
He also cites the obvious influence of theater music in Gershwin’s work, which brings us back to “Pángǔ,” which he says drew a lot of inspiration from the stage. This, Tao says, isn’t the first time that piece and the “Concerto in F” have been paired.
“It always makes me laugh when these two pieces get paired together, because I’d like to think maybe that’s a little bit of shared DNA.”
If you go
What: The orchestra, conducted by Scott Terrell, performs Conrad Tao’s “Pángǔ,” Bela Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” and George Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F,” with soloist Conrad Tao.
When: 7:30 p.m. May 12
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $35, $60, $85