The Dallas Symphony Orchestra premieres its composition in memory of John F. Kennedy on Thursday night. When the orchestra decided to commission an original piece for this 50th anniversary weekend, it didn’t turn to one of the graybeard composers with memories of that fateful day. It chose 19-year-old Conrad Tao, who was born three decades after the assassination.
Tao may be a genius. Born in Urbana, Ill., he began playing his sister’s piano lessons by ear before he was 2. He stood out as a composer early on, and won eight consecutive young composer awards. Forbes named him one of its "30 under 30" in music.
Even if he’s not a genius, the 19-year-old violinist, pianist and composer was ecstatic to get this commission. And terrified. Other masters had already written or dedicated works in memory of Kennedy – from Stravinsky to Leonard Bernstein. Tao was excited to write the rare, serious orchestral work that’s 20 minutes long.
“Not having a text, you know it means you’re trying to create this connection more abstractly," he said. "You don’t have the benefit of spoken language. Which is why I immediately started thinking about what are these signifiers of grief and mourning when it comes to orchestral sound and orchestral music?”
"Strands of memory"
Tao sought sounds that might represent emotions. But he didn’t want to write a traditional, programmatic tone poem – the kind that tells a story through music. For inspiration, he headed to the Sixth Floor Museum and found facts and oral histories about Nov. 22, 1963. He came away with a multilayered sense of that day and its aftermath. They all helped shape his work called The World is Very Different Now.
“This event had more layers after the fact that even I could’ve imagined,” Tao said. “For me, it was an interesting process just absorbing all of this because of so many people responding to this event in so many ways. I’m interested throughout the piece in a way that different colors and different strands of sound. ... I’m thinking of some musical elements as almost being strands of memory, and I’m interested in how they work together and how they’re disparate and how they maybe collide.”
That’s what they do sometimes -- collide. Other passages flow harmoniously.
"An amazing piece"
“I think it’s a strong piece,” says the symphony's music director, Jaap van Zweden. “I think it’s a good piece, an amazing piece for a young man of 19 years old.”
Van Zweden says the symphony thought long and hard about this commission. He’s happy it chose Tao.
“Being the future of this country, of this nation, and at the same time, he has the ability to understand what kind of pain there is from the past and put it on paper and be a very mature composer in that," van Zweden said.
Van Zweden says the composition itself is also important for Dallas. He’s not sure if this commission will be performed again after this weekend’s concerts. But he would be very happy if other orchestras played this piece and other compositions by Tao.