Tao gets fresh with Rach 3

September 25, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Conrad Tao plays part of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. Tao will perform the piece with the Pacific Symphony this week.
Conrad Tao plays part of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

On a mostly listless Tuesday at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Conrad Tao sat at his dressing room piano in casual street clothes and played a snippet of the world's most terrifying piece of music.

The 19-year-old closed his eyes and looked serene at first, swaying gently on the bench and letting his wrists rise and fall as if massaging the empty space above the keyboard. When the music turned hard and fast, his expression tightened and a tremor shot through his neck. Within a minute, his face twitched noticeably and neck jerked from side to side, his fingers pulsing downward as if stabbing the music.

The piece Tao was demonstrating didn't earn its formidable reputation because of unnerving chords or scandalous lyrics — it's instrumental, after all. Rather, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, known colloquially as the Rach 3, has been renowned over the years for the difficulty it takes to perform.


The Pacific Symphony, which will host Tao in its first concert of the 2013-14 Classical Series this week, bills the Rach 3 as "one of the repertoire's most powerful, most demanding and most popular works."

And that's an understatement compared to some. The British newspaper the Guardian once dubbed it "the world's toughest piano piece." The Oscar-winning biopic "Shine" — whose accuracy has admittedly been questioned — implies that performing the work helped drive pianist David Helfgott to a mental breakdown.

So an interview with Tao inevitably leads to one question: Is the Rach 3 really as hard as people say?

Considering that Tao has been playing the piece for more than a quarter of his life, perhaps it's also inevitable that the answer isn't yes or no.

"You know, it has such a reputation for being so difficult, and very virtuosic, very soloistic, which it is," said the New York resident. "It is all those things, but one of the things I think is overlooked is how much of a dialogue the piece is between piano and orchestra, and how nuanced it is."

The first pianist to publicly play the Rach 3 was the composer himself, who finished it in 1909 and debuted it in New York. Josef Hofmann, the pianist to whom Rachmaninoff dedicated the work, is said to have died on playing it in concert. Others who tackled it in later years include Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich and Olga Kern.

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