Pre-concert rituals: Conrad Tao

Professional musicians often spend much of their lives on the road performing in concert venues around the globe. Amid the hectic travel schedules, rehearsals, practice time and adjustments to a different time zone, culture and climate, regular routine is sacrificed. We ask our guest artists to share what pre-concert rituals help keep them grounded. Pianist and all-around creative genius, Conrad Tao, tells us about his pre-concert rituals in the best way he knows how: with poetry.

I’m still figuring out my pre-concert ritual.


Are you frightened of
Ninety minutes
Three varieties
Lots of water
green room coffee and the
archetypal banana


Last fall I got stuck in an elevator. This was in Ottawa, on a show day with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, a matinee on which I was performing two concerti, one by Schumann and one by Beethoven (the Emperor), and this was just past noon, after morning rehearsal and a mediocre lunch from a place whose name I don’t recall and this is all to say that I was looking forward to getting a half hour or so of silence in my hotel room, before changing into concert dress. The hotel elevator was about a half of a floor away from my floor when it kachunked into stillness. I loved every one of the fifty minutes I spent in that elevator. I was glad I was alone. I was so thoroughly tickled by this less-orthodox iteration of my usual preconcert enforcement of silence. I would not have been good company for someone with claustrophobia.


As an apology the hotel brought me a fruit basket

This story will I be remembering slightly with a position of “this is why,” perceived

origin perhaps, because I don’t like going through the motions, that much is true

But I mourn the absence of ritual in my life at the risk of careless romanticizing

and sometimes I wonder if I don’t have enough discipline

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Together In Harmony: Q&A with Ilan Volkov and Marc-André Hamelin

We have two guests joining the Utah Symphony this weekend: Ilan Volkov will be conducting and Marc-André Hamelin will be playing the piano. Since they are performing side-by-side, I decided to post their Q&As side-by-side. Their answers reveal a partnership that both are eager to represent and strengthen this weekend at Abravanel Hall.

Ilan Volkov, Conductor Marc-André Hamelin, Piano

Ilan Volkov

Ilan Volkov

Marc-Andre Hamelin

Marc-Andre Hamelin

Have you been to Utah before?
Nope. I’m excited about it.
Have you been to Utah before?
I was in Provo in the early part of the year. I’ve been to Salt Lake City twice already. One was with the symphony. It’s been 10 or 11 years ago.
Will you have time to sight-see while you are here?
I hope so. I have a few other projects. Hopefully during the coming days I should be able to over the next couple days before rehearsal’s start.
Will you have time to sight-see while you are here?
I hope so. I have 2 concerts, so it gives me more time to do that. Usually when you come in for a recital, you’re there barely 48 hours and you don’t have time. You have to concentrate as much as possible, and only have practice time.
What are you looking forward to most in Utah?
I am excited to experience a new orchestra. You never know how it’s going to go when you don’t know anyone there, and it’ll be exciting to work with them. I am also looking forward to the contrast between the old pieces and Bartók pieces.
What are you looking forward to most in Utah?
I haven’t been there beyond Provo for a long time, but I have simple pleasures. I don’t do sports beyond walking, and I like to walk and look around places. I will do that. To me that’s sufficient. If I have an umbrella, it doesn’t bother me to walk in the rain. I will probably do that today, in Vancouver.
Marc-André Hamelin will be on the piano this evening playing Mozart and Strauss. What do you like about having a soloist play along with the orchestra?
It really inspires everyone in the room. It changes the way the orchestra is listening and playing, and that happens during the first rehearsal. One of the pieces we’re playing, I’ve done with Marc before. The Strauss Burleske. We recorded it back then, and it was the first time I worked with him. This is the second, and it will be exciting to see him again.
You are well known for your recordings. What has been your favorite piece to record?
One of the main projects was doing Stravinsky’s complete orchestra works for piano and orchestra.
You recorded this Strauss piece with Ilan Volkov in the past. He is excited to see you again. What is your experience working with him?
That’s very nice of him. I had a ball at that recording session. I don’t remember the date, four our five years ago. But we got along really superbly. He’s a wonderful musician and a very attentive musical partner. He really did everything possible to have a unified performance. I remember that the sessions were done in complete harmony.
This weekend’s show will be an evening of Bartók . What are your thoughts on Béla Bartók as a composer?
The pieces we doing are interesting because he came from Hungary and it’s folk music, but he moved to the States, and being there changed Bartók’s composition a lot; it changed the way he was writing, and other composers that he encountered had different styles that influenced him. The piece was commissioned by the Boston Symphony. It’s a very special piece because there are many wonderful sections in it and they use the orchestra in different way. The movements are dramatic and short and distilled compared to other symphonies that take twice as long to develop the sounds. It uses both folk and the symphonic form and he uses that through the work.
Of the two pieces you’ll be performing, which do you like more? Mozart/Strauss. What is your favorite piece to play? Why?
I really can’t compare them. The Strauss is an old friend that I have been performing since the 1990s. The Mozart Rondo will be the first time that I have played it. I thought it would be interesting to program because I am taking it on tour next spring. I want to get acquainted with it beforehand. It’s an uncomplicated piece, fresh and wonderful. It’s a piece that the audiences also like. There is another Rondo, in D major, that is often performed and I have played that before, but The A major is a new thing to me.
Traveling around as a guest conductor can make a schedule full, but is there a television show that you absolutely must watch, or that you’re addicted to?
*laughs* That’s a funny question. I’m watching stuff like “True Detectives.” I’m a bit behind though. I don’t watch that much, usually on the plane.
Traveling around as a guest soloist can make a schedule full, but is there a television show that you absolutely must watch, or that you’re addicted to?
No, but over the last few years, I like to buy a DVD set and go through the series. The most recent one was “American Horror Story: Coven.” But I’ve gone through “Heroes,” “Dollhouse,” “True Calling.” I’ve started a series that is largely forgotten, called “Carnivale.” I also went through the first 5 seasons of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Of everywhere you have been, what is the best food you have ever eaten?
That’s a hard one. I’ve lived a lot of places, the most exciting food was in Japan while working there. Especially in Kyoto. You cannot understand what goes on with the food there until you’ve been there.
Of everywhere you have been, what is the best food you have ever eaten?
That’s impossible. I’ve had so many culinary experiences. It seems like that last really good meal always feels like the best food you’ve ever eaten, so it’s unfair to other meals that I’ve ever eaten to pick just one.
What is on your iPod?
*laughs* I actually don’t have one. I’m still old school and still travel with a CD player and CDs. But I’ve tried to stop doing that as well. I listen to so much music at home, so when I’m traveling I listen to less things and try to read more. I have a huge record collection, and when everything went digital with downloading and computers, I decided not to go with it because I would spend even more time on it.
What do you like to read?
Novels usually. Modern or old. I read music books and art books and things like that. I can’t really read as much as I’d like because I have to concentrate on other things.
What is on your iPod?
*laughs* I don’t have one, but my iTunes has about 10-11 days’ worth of music on it. Very experimental and avant garde and electronic sounds, and classical music too. 20-30% of it is classical. It’s very little because I know so much already, when I want to look at a piece I look at the score because I can hear it when I look at it, so I get the recording where there isn’t a score.

I am looking forward to this performance of four works that I have never seen performed live. It will be a wonderful experience watching these two interact with the symphony. For more information about the performance including program notes, artist profiles and the program, go here.

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A Moment with Mark Wigglesworth

At the end of this month and the beginning of next month, the Utah Symphony is pleased to welcome back conductor Mark Wigglesworth for not just one, but two performances. On February 28 and March 1, Wigglesworth will be conducting Albert Schnelzer’s “A Freak in Burbank” (it’s the US premiere of the piece), Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto (with Alexander Melnikov on the piano) and Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2.

On March 7 and 8, after a week of vacation in the Utah countryside, Wigglesworth will return to conduct Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (the Haffner Symphony), Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 4, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”).

Wigglesworth was more than happy to provide us with answers to some questions. Here’s a preview of what you can expect from him.


This show is the US Premiere of “A Freak in Burbank” by Albert Schnelzer. What drew you to this music?

Living composers have to combine the desire to be original with the need to be accessible. New music has to speak to people, but if the sound world is too familiar, there is no point playing the piece at all. I think Schnelzer achieves an ideal balance between innovation and tradition. Plus it sounds fun – not the most common quality in contemporary music!


What is the difference between conducting a newer piece like “A Freak in Burbank” as opposed to a classic like Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony? Does the tone of the concert change when there is a modern piece in the mix?

Playing new music is enormously liberating. In the absence of any performance tradition, one is truly free to be the best musician one can be and to employ one’s imagination as sincerely and personally as possible. There is no looking over your shoulder to match any previous performance or pressure to come up to people’s private pre-conceptions, whether amongst the musicians in the orchestra or within the audience, itself. When you give a premiere you know it is the best performance that piece has ever received! Conversely playing a well-known work – and there aren’t many more well known than Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony – one has to try and make sure that one is not overly inhibited by expectations from the past. There is something wonderful about being part of the tradition that makes up a great work’s living history and I love performing pieces that are popular because they are truly great masterpieces. But the aim is to make them sound as fresh as when the ink was still wet on the page, to give the feeling to those listening that they have never heard the piece before. It is a mistake to try and be different for its own sake, but to try and remember how it felt to hear the work for the first time normally does the trick. The shock of the old!


In the first show, Alexander Melnikov will be playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto. What do you like about having a piano soloist in the show?

Everyone loves the piano! It has a universal, almost objective quality that often transcends the person playing it. Not that our soloist needs transcending. I’ve worked with Alexander Melnikov before, and I know he will give this much loved piece all the personal lyricism and public drama it requires.


Do you have a favorite out of the six pieces you will be conducting?

The cliché answer is to say that they are all great works. And they are. But I have to be honest and say that Dvorak’s final symphony was the first piece of music I genuinely fell in love with. It was the first recording that I ever bought and was the first piece of music that made me realize what music really can be. It is a privilege to be able to connect back so deeply to that innocent wonder and childlike thrill.


It’s our honor to welcome you back to Utah and for two shows in a row. Do you have any plans for the week that you’ll be here aside from conducting the Utah Symphony?

As a countryside lover I’m looking forward to getting out and about. I’m sure it will be just as exhilarating as the music.


All of us here at USUO can’t wait for the exhilaration. For more information about Mark Wigglesworth and to listen to some really good music, visit his website at

Visit for concert and ticket information.

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