Review: A 'screen test' for Chamber Orchestra

Conrad Tao has appeared worldwide as a pianist and composer, and has been dubbed a musician of “probing intellect and open-hearted vision” by the New York Times. (Credit: Brantley Gutierrez)

Someday, if the current trend continues, technology addicts will skip all this handheld nonsense and just have cellphones implanted directly in their brains.

Until then, arts groups will continue looking for ways to integrate technology into the concert experience, like Sunday afternoon's premiere at the Kimmel of a new work for piano, chamber orchestra, and iGadgets.

Conrad Tao's An Adjustment, which opened the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's 51st season, did not succumb to technology for its own sake. In fact, the electronic sounds he controlled from his screens dropped into the piece only in the most judicious way. The focus was on the interplay between the orchestra and Tao's Steinway, and any compositional magic - there was plenty - happened the old-fashioned way.

Each of the program's three works had a foot in two different eras. Léo Delibes' Le Roi s'amuse, Airs de Danse dans le Style Ancien layered standard orchestrations on old tunes that music director Dirk Brossé said reminded him of 16th-century composer Tielman Susato. The great pleasure in the Perelman was being right on top of the ensemble, to hear a kind of refined unity I don't recall this group having the last time I heard it live (radio can deceive).

Elsewhere, the cross-era connections rang even more clearly. Tao was also soloist in the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, which one wag noted starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach. He was a stunning soloist, but specifically so because he kept his monstrous technique on a leash. At age 21, rather than flaunting it, he used it for sincerity and wit - waiting a split second in certain entrances for a flash of humor, or holding back for emphasis. The opening was moving, and the way he paced mounting intensity in the last minutes uncovered the best in this work, but also mirrored the end of his own new concerto.

It's perhaps too much to think of An Adjustment as a companion piece to the Saint-Saëns, but they do share contours like the lurching dialogue of orchestra and soloist at the start, and the traversal of bleak territory on the way to an incredible release (an adjustment in medication, perhaps, as Tao writes that the piece is partly about depression).

If Saint-Saëns touched on two eras, Tao integrated in the most imaginative way the current style of spiritual post-Romanticism and '90s techno club music. The electronic element was a clever manipulation of beats fed through two speakers on stage - clever not because it suggested humor or irony, but because it extended the impact of the orchestral texture. Cultural bridges were everywhere, but everywhere they elided naturally. The uneasy opening movement gave way to a subtle conversation that worked through despair, a realm both beautiful and creepy, a radiant climax and a brief stopover at jazz before ending in a haze of electronic-acoustical ecstasy.