ASPEN - Aspen did not give Conrad Tao the inclination to be an uncommonly curious and adventurous musician. By the age of 5, living in Illinois and years before he even knew of Aspen, Tao was playing both piano and violin and composing scores, beginning with his own rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
But Aspen has been the environment where Tao has felt supported and encouraged to pursue his wide range of interests. Tao spent six summers at the Aspen Music School, and the lasting impression of his Aspen experience was that it was OK to let one's creative mind drift.
"That whole idea of trying to do anything possible to expand my musicianship - that was encouraged," Tao, now 18, said Tuesday afternoon behind the East End lodge where he was staying. "The whole philosophy that governs this place is one that encourages people to do as much as they can. Opportunities are everywhere to do anything you want to do as a musician. I felt people understood me, that I wanted to do as much as I could. I didn't feel weird at all."
The audience at Thursday's season-opening concert at the Aspen Music Festival will get just a slice of Tao's musical range. He is among three pianists, along with Inan Barnatan and Marc-Andre Hamelin, headlining the special event, A Gershwin Celebration, at the Benedict Music Tent. Which means listeners won't witness Tao's talent as a composer. For that, intrepid listeners might travel to Hong Kong in September, when "Pangu," Tao's overture-like piece inspired by the Chinese creation myth, has its premiere, coinciding with the China Day holiday and with the introduction of Jaap van Zweden as director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. For the somewhat less ambitious, the Dallas Symphony, in November 2013, will perform Tao's composition to observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination, in Dallas, of John Kennedy.
Nor will the crowd tonight experience Tao, the strings player. Tao has for the most part stopped performing as a violin soloist to focus on piano and composition.
Some might even think they are not seeing Tao, the pianist, in his most serious musical mode. But for those who dismiss Gershwin as a middlebrow hybrid of pop, jazz, classical and Broadway sensibilities, Tao looks for forward to giving them reason to reconsider. "Gershwin's pedigree is not assured. But I, for one, think he's a genius," said Tao, who will perform Gershwin's Second Rhapsody. (Barnatan will play Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F major, while Hamelin performs the famed Rhapsody in Blue.)
The concert is not a celebration of Gershwin alone. Conducting is Robert Spano, in his first season as music director of the Aspen Music Festival. (His title last summer was music director-designate.) It also serves as a kick-off to the theme of the Music Festival season, Made in America, with a spotlight on American composers and on pieces with an American connection.
Tao's parents, both immigrants from China, are professors in the sciences, not musicians. But there was an upright piano in the family home in the college town of Urbana, Ill., and Tao was drawn to it. His parents, though, steered him first toward violin, reasoning that there were child-size violins, but not child-size pianos. When Conrad was 5, the family moved closer to Chicago and Tao began piano lessons at the Music Institute of Chicago. His teacher, Emilio del Rosario, introduced him to sonatas by Mozart and Clementi, and Tao recognized an instinct in himself.
"Conventional wisdom says I shouldn't have been playing that repertoire at that age," he said. "But it made it so explicit how much I enjoyed doing this."
In 2004 Tao spent his first summer in Aspen, as a violin student, and was thrilled by how much there was to absorb: five orchestras; chamber music and operas and orchestral performances every day; hundreds of student and dozens of teachers.
"The music school is so large and there's such an abundance of concerts, anyone here can hear a wider range of musical personalities than anywhere else. That's special. It's rare and very specific to this type of festival environment," he said. Tao recalls a concert he performed as a member of the violin section in the Aspen Festival Orchestra, which opened the Festival Orchestra's 2006 season. The concert opened with the premiere of Kevin Puts' Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma, and concluded with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7. "That felt so incredibly special. Everything was new. It felt so exciting to dive in immediately. It was something I couldn't have anywhere else."
Though he has moved his focus away from violin, Tao consider his five years in Aspen as a member of the violin section critical to his success as a piano soloist. "It was incredibly rewarding to play different repertoire with a different conductor every week. So interesting and so educational," said Tao, who also studied one session, in 2008, as a composition student under George Tsontakis. "I know what orchestra members want from a rehearsal and from a soloist. I've gained an understanding of the dynamic between orchestra and soloist. You know what an orchestra wants from a soloist and doesn't get."
Tao made his Aspen debut in 2006, while still a student, playing Mozart's three-piano concerto under conductor Leonard Slatkin. When Tao returned to Aspen, in 2010, to fill in for an ailing Jeffrey Kahane, he was a full-fledged soloist, having performed with numerous orchestras.
Tao remains a student. While maintaining a performing and composing career, and being designated a 2012 Gilmore Foundation Young Artist, he takes liberal arts courses at Columbia, near his apartment on Manhattan's far Upper West Side.
"I'm not there for vocational training," he said of his college experience. "I'm there to get interested in a variety of subjects, expand my head space. It keeps my brain flowing."
It's similar to his time as a student in Aspen, a time to expand, wander, consider his options. "There was always that fear that someone would tell me, 'OK, pick one instrument.' I dreaded that day," Tao said. "But in Aspen, it wasn't discouraged."
The Aspen Music Festival opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 19, with daily performances including chamber music, opera, orchestral concerts, master classes and more. The season theme is Made in America, with an emphasis on American composers and music with American connections.
For a full schedule, go to aspenmusicfestival.com.