Conrad Tao’s Newest Composition Inspires Focus In The Chaos Of The Pandemic

Conrad Tao, left, and Stefan Jackiw, right, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about the music and their years-long history of enthusiastic collaborations.

Shervin Lainez

Two of today’s foremost contemporary classical musicians take the stage this weekend at Symphony Hall, with the world premiere performance of the new violin concerto composed by Conrad Tao. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will perform his composition which he simply calls “Violin Concerto,” with lead violinist Stephan Jackiw under Conductor Robert Spano. Tao and Jackiw joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about the music and their years-long history of enthusiastic collaborations.

Conrad Tao wrote the concerto specifically for Stephan Jackiw, and it’s the third of his compositions to be created with Jackiw in mind. “There are so many things that I love about Stephan’s playing,” said Tao. “This incredible sense of line and phrasing, and this incredible and complex emotionality that I perceive in his tone, a tone that also is quite pure in many ways… opens up all of this richness in the music, and so it is always a pleasure to write for someone like that.”

The admiration seems to flow in both directions, and Jackiw spoke warmly of the music he’ll be performing with his long-time collaborator. “In this violin concerto, I think there’s such a beautiful form to it. The way in which it unfolds is so organic… But it’s also driven by such a powerfully expressive emotional core,” said Jackiw. “I think the slow movement is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard for violin and orchestra. It’s just instantly lovable, without being sentimental at all.”

He added, “When I was talking with our conductor, Robert Spano… one word that he used to describe the final movement, the third movement, which I think is perfect, is ‘whimsy….’ There are some parts that just make me smile in the last movement, because they’re just so playful and kind of cheeky, even.”

Tao describes an almost synesthetic approach to writing for orchestra, referring to many of his musical gestures as “shapes,” “pointillism,” even “a kind of pinball bounce.” The approach, he explained, comes in part from the way he perceives sound outside of the orchestra hall. “When I’m out in everyday reality, and I hear noise on the street, or I just hear sounds in sequence out in the world, a lot of stuff gets perceived as melody, in a way,” said Tao. “So I’m always interested in the boundary between pitched, non-pitched, between tone and noise. All these things are just perpetually interesting to me, and they show up in this work.”

The inspiration for this bouncing, multi-sensory emotional journey of a concerto came from Tao’s experience of the last year and half, living in New York through the pandemic. Like many, he spent many months living mostly online, wrestling with the chaos of digital life and the wealth of misinformation and rabbit holes pulling at his attention.

“I was inspired by thinking about how difficult it was to find focus, like real, real focus, in such a distracted and overflowing time. And I think, like many people, I found much of that peace, that inner peace and focus, in time spent outdoors,” said Tao. “I found the simple practice of watching the motion of insects, or leaves, or in my case the Hudson River… the simple gift of focus. And so I think if the piece has a story, it’s an attempt to find that focus, and it’s an attempt to find that simple joy.”

The performance of Conrad Tao’s new violin concerto joins a full program of music featuring Stephan Jackiw and the Atlanta Symphony, including compositions by Richard Strauss and Alvin Singleton. Performances take place Friday, Sept. 17, and Saturday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. More information and tickets are available at