Piano prodigies share festival stage | AspenTimes.com

Piano prodigies share festival stage

Susannah Luthi
Special to The Aspen Times
Fourteen-year-old Peng Peng joins fellow piano prodigy Conrad Tao in a performance today with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. (Courtesy Aspen Music Festival and School)

Both 12-year-old Conrad Tao and 14-year-old Peng Peng have been making music since before they can remember.

For Peng Peng, it started in Nanjing, China, where he was born. Right away his father, pianist Guoyu Gong, noticed that when he played chords, Peng Peng somehow knew the precise notes he played, even at age 2. The youngster began studying the piano and, at age 8, moved to Shanghai to continue studying. At age 10, his parents brought him to New York, where he started in precollege studies at the Juilliard School with Aspen Music Festival and School artist-faculty member Yoheved Kaplinsky.

As for Tao, he says his mother and father remember him tapping out melodies he’d heard from television on the piano keys when he was only 18 months old. Neither of his parents are musicians. “It came naturally,” says Tao, who started the violin when he was 2 years old because his hands were still too small for the piano. His piano lessons began when he was 3. “I never understood exactly where it came from.”

Three years ago, the two young pianists met at Juilliard.

They were the only ones in the room, waiting for a theory class to start, and introduced themselves. It turned out they were both students of Kaplinsky. Since then, they have been friends, co-performers and even schoolmates at the Professional Children’s School in New York. They have both been featured on the NPR program “From the Top” and both are composers. (Peng Peng studies composition at Juilliard with Andrew Thomas, and Tao studies it privately with Christopher Theofanidis.) Tao is a violinist, as well, performing with the Aspen Music Festival orchestras.

And they perform what they write, too. In fact, as part of the Juilliard Centennial celebration last summer at the Aspen festival, they performed a sonata for two pianos that Tao had composed himself.

And today, on the 4 p.m. Aspen Festival Orchestra concert program, they will perform Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in F major, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

Both Peng Peng and Tao have caused quite a stir in the musical world. Their collaborations have become more and more frequent in the past year, and Tao says it’s his dream that their careers continue to intersect.

For both boys, music comes by instinct, and has carried them far. Peng Peng came to the United States without knowing a word of English, and plunged directly into an intense practicing and performing schedule. Conrad, born in Urbana, Ill., studied in Chicago until he was 9, when his parents and older sister moved with him to New York.

Both youngsters went there to study at Juilliard, and both of them are now in their third summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where they keep up their studies with Kaplinsky. Conrad splits his time with violin studies with artist-faculty member Paul Kantor.

During the summer, Peng Peng practices about eight hours a day ” double what he has time for in New York. Conrad spends about two-and-a-half hours daily on each of his instruments, depending on what kind of performances are in the offing.

He doesn’t know yet which instrument he will choose to focus on entirely ” “probably piano, but I’m not sure,” he says.

In the meantime, it helps his composition work to be familiar with the two instruments that claim so much rich repertoire.

He says he’s been consciously composing since he was 3 or 4. “I always had small melodies in my head,” he said. “I still have them.”

At age 5, Conrad kept melodies recorded in a big book. Now, he uses a computer program.

When it comes to their favorite composers, Conrad offers, “Most of them are dead.”

Both lean toward Shostakovich. Peng Peng also loves Rachmaninoff ” the “Rach Three” is a concerto he is longing to learn, along with Prokofiev’s Second. And, adds Conrad, Mozart and Beethoven can’t be forgotten for their immeasurable impact on classical music.

Both are much like other kids their age ” doing the typical homework assignments, for example ” but as concert pianists with an appreciation for classical music, they are set apart. Conrad and Peng Peng profess a desire to make an impact of their own in urging their peers toward the music world they love.

“Classical music is harder to understand for the younger generation, and we keep playing music that we’ve all heard a million times,” Conrad explained.

He wonders why classic rock and classical music can’t be merged to appeal to a wider audience. “I want to bring classical music to more kids,” he said.

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