Updated: February 15, 2014 at 5:47 pm
Three things helped to elevate Friday night's Colorado Springs Philharmonic concert at Pike Peak Center into a special event.
First, this was the first Friday night Classical Masterwork concert since the birth of the philharmonic in 2003. In the change, the organization experiments with a return to a three-concert run (the hall was reasonably well attended). Second, the 2014-2015 season was unveiled through a nicely produced video (this looks to be the finest looking philharmonic season to date). Third, music director Josep Caballe-Domenech was back conducting a classical concert for the first time in three months.
All of these were eclipsed by one thing: the power of music.
The concert was entitled "Tchaikovsky Pathetique." And while the orchestra was driven to a powerful and emotionally focused performance of the Russian composer's ultimate masterpiece by conductor Caball?Domenech, few in attendance would quibble with a revised title: "The Incredible Conrad Tao."
The 19-year-old pianist arrived with enough hype to fill an entire encyclopedia. Friday night, he bounded on to the stage, barely acknowledging the audience, and took his place at the keyboard for the first of two outstanding performances.
Tao took off in a blaze with Rachmaninoff''s "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini." This is an ever-shifting score comprised of 24 variations with appropriate packaging. Tao conquered this wild ride, easily projecting its extremes: heavy handed, almost comical histrionics, and thoughtful, patient and, at times, supremely beautiful intimacy.
Bonus points (yes, there was a sense we were witness to a competition by an Olympic athlete) were scored by Tao's ability to tell a dramatic story through his playing, and, ironically, how he set up and reveled in the few moments of silence the score provides.
The orchestra fell short of matching the pianist's energy and extrovertedness at the outset but slipped into the festivities as the piece developed, contributing to a rousing experience.
Next, more of the same. Liszt's "Totentanz" ("Dance of Death") had to have been a model that Rachmaninoff had in mind for his "Rhapsody." The theme here was the ancient Latin setting of the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath"), which had also invaded the first piece.
Again, variations. And now, with Tao hurling himself at the composer's insanely difficult keyboard demands at death defying speed, the daemonic underpinning came off more like a cartoon than a harrowing journey to the grave. It was over the top and wonderful.
Encouraged by Caball?Domenech, the orchestra was right with Tao - with the winds and horns in perfect character and the violins especially rich.
From the manic to the depressive. Conductor and orchestra caught the dark brooding of the opening of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" (6th Symphony) with ideal restraint; Alex Viera's bassoon perfectly capturing the voice of despair. Thanks to the beautiful voice of the violas, the music was sensitively passed to the violins who hit right in the heart of the matter. As he had all evening, clarinetist Sergei Vassiliev made the most of his moments in the spotlight, setting up a powerful explosion as the drama ignited.
Caball?Domenechknew exactly what he wanted to project and the orchestra honored his vision in all four movements of the work: the waltz-like second movement pitted elegance against despair; the maniacal third movement struggled to rise above defeat; and the agonizing fourth movement managed to show light through the composer's tears.
So potent was the descent to death in the work's final measures that the audience could barely generate the kind of enthusiasm the performance deserved.
Who: The Colorado Springs Philharmonic, conductor Josep Caballe-Domench, piano soloist Conrad Tao
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Tickets: $12-$59; 520-7469; pikespeakcenter.com
Next: "Odyssey: Epic Destinations" on March 8