The Winston-Salem Symphony closed out the 2016-17 season this weekend by featuring the up and coming composer/pianist Conrad Tao, whom the New York Times describes as a musician of “probing intellect and open-hearted vision.” The 22-year-old has received numerous awards including the Gilmore Young Artist, “an honor awarded every two years highlighting the most promising American pianists of the new generation.” The praise was no exaggeration: Tao’s piano playing was electrifying.

Tao tore up the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 by Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953). The composer served as piano soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1921, and although this work was not immediately popular, it has become the most famous of his 5 piano concerti.

The audience was immediately struck by the pianist’s ferocious power and incredible facility. Tao often played the fiendishly difficult passages like a man possessed. To be sure, there were moments of incredible lyricism, but the takeaway was Tao’s flying fingers and his flamboyant style. He was as much fun to watch as to hear. Talk about fun to watch. WSS music director Robert Moody kept a close eye on Tao, and did some fun movements both here and throughout the evening.

We loved it all. Tao treated the enthusiastic throng to two encores – an over-the-top performance of Mozart’s “Rondo a la Turk” from the A minor Sonata – complete with dramatic dynamic contrasts as well as some embellishments. The second “sentimental” encore was the theme to Twin Peaks, which is returning to TV this weekend.

The audience also had the opportunity to hear Tao’s 2013 composition, The world is very different now, which was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Tao later became Artist-in-Residence with the orchestra in 2015-16. The 20-minute work was written in observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, as the composer described, “is ultimately about memory. I wanted to explore the way this assassination was an event associated with a myriad of specific and individual memories.”

The composition displayed a multitude of influences – from the blocks of sound pioneered by Ligeti and Penderecki to ethereal vibraphone sounds created by bowing one note and full-scale assault by four percussionists. There were also dreamy passages that came in waves as the orchestral sound peaked and receded. Add some bugle calls and a haunting alto saxophone beautifully played by Eileen Young, and you begin to get a sense of this sometimes languid, sometimes sinister, intense and fragmented composition. Projected onto a screen hanging above the stage, were chronologically arranged pictures of JFK’s life that more or less followed the trajectory of the music.

The evening opened with Stravinsky’s colorful 1945 version of the suite from the ballet The Firebird, which premiered in Paris in 1910. Stravinsky (1882-1971) was 28 and unknown outside of Russia; the score arguably launched his international presence. One doesn’t necessarily need to know the story to appreciate the music, but Maestro Moody informed the audience of the general sequence of events, which allowed us to follow along more closely.

This is a tour-de-force for the orchestra, and practically every principal chair had a solo, all of which were solidly performed. Certainly, one must mention Robert Campbell‘s fine horn playing as well as Daniel Skidmore‘s violin work. But there were also wonderful flute from Kathryn Levy, oboe from Amanda LeBreque, clarinet from Ron Rudkin, bassoon from Saxton Rose, trombone from Brian French, and cello from Brooks Whitehouse. The Finale seemed a bit slow and deliberate with the chords from the strings detached, but the final climax was brilliant, ushering in an evening of terrific music.

This performance repeats Sunday, May 21 at 3 pm and Tuesday, May 23 at 7:30 pm at the Stevens Center on the campus of UNCSA. See our sidebar for details.

Edited on 5/22/17.