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Conrad Tao

Conrad Tao, a pianist and composer who has won dozens of awards, including eight young composer awards, appeared with the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra Saturday night.

It was a night of experimentation for the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra Saturday when the musicians performed two works – one a world premiere and the other collaboration between visual and aural sensations.

The more successful, Conrad Tao’s “An Adjustment,” was augmented by visuals projected on a screen behind the pianist. There, bursts of light danced while Tao performed a piece that might really pop with Matthew Barney’s visuals.

Artist Daniel Fine provided Saturday’s digital art and, for the most part,  it wasn’t anything you haven’t already seen. He did, however, have an interesting series of lights running along the side of Tao’s piano that almost looked like they were infusing the strands morphing on screen.

Tao’s music – which began simply, then exploded into a clash of sounds – nicely represented its inspiration – a year of doubt, a time of clawing oneself out of a hole. Fine’s visuals reflected that but the combination was, again, nothing new. Walt Disney tried something similar decades ago with “Fantasia.” This collaboration took the concept to another level, letting Fine use an iPad to create the visual punctuation.

Tao’s performance, meanwhile, suggested plenty and gave him an opportunity to show just how facile he is on the piano. Hearing him perform something more traditional would have helped emphasize what “An Adjustment” represents.

After a rather lengthy changeover (the multimedia presentation involved more than you could possibly imagine), the orchestra introduced Saad Haddad’s “Tahkt,” an original composition created as part of his 2017 Composer of the Year obligation.

Haddad said the piece (the word means “ensemble”) was inspired by traditional Middle Eastern music, particularly the work of Umm Kulthum, a successful Egyptian singer who had a massive following.

While Haddad’s creation, didn’t sample anything by Kulthum, it would have been helpful. Much of the discordant music reflected turmoil, not triumph. If anything, the music demonstrated how versatile the Sioux City musicians are, able to produce those Middle Eastern sounds with instruments not normally associated with such production.

The best solo, turned in by the night’s harpist, provided a lifeline for an audience unfamiliar with Haddad’s inspirations.

Titled “Season Finale 2.0,” the last concert of the season was, like last year’s finale, a chance to stretch what qualifies as orchestral music. It isn’t meant to be comforting or familiar, but expanding and challenging.

To close, music director Ryan Haskins selected Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. It gave season ticketholders a chance to regain their footing and enjoy something more familiar.

Haskins should be applauded for taking risks with something as wide-ranging as Saturday’s offerings. Even though the original works weren’t immediately embraceable, they were thought provoking.  Often, that’s the most we can ask of art.

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