Pianist Tao holds over to ace chamber concert

Arkansas Symphony audiences perhaps take for granted that the orchestra brings in, on a continuing basis, world-class soloists.

Twice a year (thanks now to a large bequest by the late E. Lee Ronnell), soloists stick around after a weekend of impressing listeners in Masterworks classical concerts to play chamber music for the ASO's River Rhapsodies series.

So pianist Conrad Tao played Tuesday night at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, most impressively in a knockout performance of Antonin Dvorak's Piano Quintet No. 2 with the orchestra's Rockefeller Quartet, but also in solo pieces and his own arrangement of a Robert Schumann song.

Dvorak's quintet is at, or near, the apex of the chamber music repertoire, a near-perfect collaboration between piano and strings, and Tao and the quartet -- Trisha McGovern Freeney and Linnaea Brophy, violins; Katherine Reynolds, viola; and Jacob Wunsch, cello -- did not disappoint in the least. Tempos and balance were excellent and the players were fine in ensemble and also in the moments when the composer let them shine individually.

As a lead-in, Tao joined Freeney and Wunsch in his own piano-trio arrangement of "Auf einer Burg" from Schumann's "Liederkreis" song cycle; as it sort of died away and didn't give the audience a chance to applaud, there was a little confusion as the musicians almost immediately started playing the Dvorak piece.

Tao opened the concert with a "suite" set of solos, including one of his own -- "All I Have Forgotten, or Tried to Do"; two by Sergei Rachmaninoff -- "Daisies" and the 18th Variation from "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini"; and two jazz works: Art Tatum's "version" of "Over the Rainbow" (to which he treated listeners as an encore to his performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 over the weekend) and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," which -- surprise! -- he also sang.