Performance Review: Conrad Tao Plays Prokofiev
The Jacksonville Symphony’s 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series season concluded in rousing fashion this weekend with “Conrad Tao Plays Prokofiev,” a program featuring the work of two 20th century Russian symphonic titans.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 by Sergei Prokofiev
The first half of the concert was given over to Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Easily the best known of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, the Third demands not only virtuosity from the soloist but a conductor and orchestra who are sensitive to balance and texture. Pianist Conrad Tao did not disappoint. From the first note to the last, his performance was characterized by crackling energy and vivid drama. He played with a crystalline clarity of texture, which is so vital in the music of Prokofiev. Music Director Courtney Lewis and the Symphony proved equal partners. From the opening clarinet solo, resonantly sculpted by principal clarinet Giovanni Bertoni, textures were so clear and transparent I felt as though I could hear each and every instrument on the stage. One could sense the immediacy of the connection amongst all the musicians on the stage. The second movement showed Tao’s ear for dynamic nuance, the tender intimacy of the quieter passages melding into a seamless tapestry with the strings. Sarcasm and humor are central to Prokofiev’s style, and these traits were exploited to the fullest by both soloist and orchestra through deft handling of tempo changes and dynamics. The entire performance contained a relentless driving energy, which drew the final movement to conclude with such force that I honestly thought the piano was going to fly off the stage!
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 by Dmitri Shostakovich
The second half of the program consisted of Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 10 in E minor. As Courtney Lewis appropriately noted in his informative opening remarks, this symphony is indeed one of the darkest and most powerful works in the standard orchestral repertoire. Depicting on a monumental canvas the oppressive life in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russia, it traverses a bleak world of terror, resistance and hope. Taking an audience on that level of an emotional pilgrimage is a challenge for the finest of orchestras, and the Jacksonville Symphony met that challenge gloriously. Each movement was dispatched with meaning and purpose. Courtney Lewis had a keen ear for balance in the first movement, ensuring Shostakovich’s menacing, angular melodic lines were always clear. The Second movement’s blazing outbursts had visceral power that surpassed anything I’ve yet heard come off the stage of Jacoby Symphony Hall. By the time the hour-long journey concluded, it was clear from the audience’s reaction this great work had been communicated with clarity and authority.
The concert concluded with the appreciative audience rising to their feet in acknowledgement of not only a great concert but of a great season. It is hard to imagine an orchestral program that could surpass the excitement and emotional range of “Conrad Tao Plays Prokofiev,” and it was a crowning conclusion for what has been a memorable year indeed.
Tim Tuller is the Canon for Music at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida. Tuller formerly wrote for the Florida Times-Union as the classical music reviewer.
Watch, Listen and Read
Interested in joining the Jacksonville Symphony for another innovative and engaging season? Please visit our 2023/24 Season page to learn more about next season’s programming. Additional content for this performance includes an episode of Insight and a full set of Program Notes. Looking for more content? Subscribe to our YouTube Channel to watch concert archives, interviews, behind the scenes content and more.
The Jacksonville Symphony would like to give special thanks to Florida Blue for sponsoring the Classical Series. Additional thanks are given to Tim Tuller for attending the performance and writing this performance review: Conrad Tao Plays Prokofiev.