When Conrad Tao says something happened when he was “really young”—as in, he first heard Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings or he composed his first concerto—it takes a moment to register. He’s only 15, so “really young” translates to something like 9, which is the age he moved from Naperville to New York to study music at Juilliard.

All that study has paid off: This year he’ll don a tux and perform piano solos against the backdrop of the California Symphony, the Fort Worth Symphony, and the Symphony of the Americas. But one of the shows he looks forward to most is Ravinia, where he plays July 6th.

“I grew up going to concerts at the pavilion,” says the young prodigy, who was discovered as a student of the Music Institute of Chicago. His family lived in Naperville then, and he recalls summer evenings when they’d picnic on the Ravinia lawn. “It’s a very personal thing to come back and play,” he says.

Later in the year, Tao will return to Chicago for the classical series Music in the Loft, where he is the 2009-2010 resident composer. “It’s difficult to select composers whose music is accessible,” says Music in the Loft’s founder and artistic director, Fredda Hyman. “I just liked his music.”

Curiously, neither of Tao’s parents is a musician: His father is an engineer and his mother is a research scientist who specializes in climatology. When Tao was 18 months old, he climbed up on his sister’s piano bench and plucked out the tune to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Now, in preparation for performances all over the world, he practices piano four to five hours a day and violin for another one to two. He also composes music, though he’s still searching for his trademark sound. “If you listen to the music I wrote six months ago, it sounds completely different than what I’m doing now,” he says. “It will be that way until I dictate my personal style, a term that people are completely skeptical of anyone under 23 saying.” You can almost hear him rolling his eyes as he says it. It’s a reminder that he’s still a teenager, after all. Conrad Tao plays Ravinia July 6th. For tickets, 847-266-5100 or ravinia.org


Photograph: Chris Buck