Orchestral musicians tend to be a serious bunch when on stage.
A sea of applause may splash down upon them after an inspiring performance from an enthralled audience, but oftentimes they'll receive it without cracking much of a smile. And that's OK, given the solemn greatness of their playing subject matter, the restrictive black-and-white nature of their concert attire and the standard decorum of the high-class hall.
But when Conrad Tao played his evening encore Thursday night, I couldn't help but notice more smiles than usual within the Pacific Symphony. There was quiet elation, perhaps fascination, with the 16-year-old Chinese American piano prodigy — who was a last-minute but welcome substitute for Yuja Wang, who cancelled her appearances the week before due to illness — as he performed Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6."
The pros looked center stage at Tao at the Steinway with faces reminiscent of proud grandparents at their grandson's recital or an ecstatic uncle at his niece's play. I suppose that made sense, considering the gifted pianist's relative youth and succinct "Hello, everybody. I'm not Yuja Wang" pre-encore introduction.
Skill-wise, age was no deterrent to Tao's command of the pianoforte. Precise execution and youthful exuberance characterized much of Tao's technique for Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." But as impressive as seeing those hands fly about the keyboard was, I relished his expressivity on Variation 18 of the Rachmaninoff, where we in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall finally got a chance to relish Tao's lyricism.
By the end of "Paganini," the cheering crowd on its feet for the young man from Illinois, I wondered if he might encore with something to tenderly bring down the audience from its musical cloud nine. I hoped for something calm and reflective, something that would showcase another side of this fantastic musician. Jon Kimura Parker's subdued Joplin, an encore after his four standing ovations for Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" last September, came to mind.
Unfortunately, the Liszt wasn't that. Impressive, yes, but not representative of all Tao has. Still, it's clear Tao is already reaching performance heights that can only get higher as his career progresses.
The rest of the concert — aside from the performance of Martinu's "Memorial to Lidice" — was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, which conductor Carl St.Clair said had not been performed by the orchestra since 1998.
St.Clair, a charismatic public speaker, gave a moving introduction highlighting the symphony's "triumph of the human spirit over oppression," "sarcastic humor" and "silent cries."
Thursday's all-around playing in the Shostakovich "protest" symphony was the best I've heard in my year hearing the orchestra. The French horns proclaimed with great gusto throughout and the solo playing — particularly Mercedes Smith on flute, Benjamin Lulich on clarinet and Rose Corrigan on bassoon — in the Largo movement was transfixing.
Even the dynamics of the orchestra, whereas its fortes are often strong but its pianissimos don't often whisper softly enough for this listener, were hypnotic. The Pacific Symphony strings sang so well that there were those moments where they could take you back to a cold, oppressive evening in the snowy Soviet socialist state — no matter how hot it may have been outside in the early-summer heat.