Classical music may be hanging on for dear life in the United States, but in China, it’s just getting into high gear. The conservatories are packed, state-of-the-art concert halls are blossoming and new ensembles are forming at a rapid clip. So it was fascinating to hear the China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra — at seven years old, among the youngest in the new crop — present a distinctive and often quite powerful program at the Kennedy Center on Monday night.
The performance, part of the orchestra’s inaugural North American tour, opened with perhaps the most captivating work on the program, the 1999 orchestral suite “Wu Xing (The Five Elements)” from composer Chen Qigang. It’s a meditative work of great delicacy, evoking the essence of water, fire, earth, wood and metal through nuanced, intuitive textures and otherworldly colors. Conductor Lü Jia took an appropriately minimalist approach, drawing a transparent, beautifully detailed reading from the orchestra.
Yuja Wang, a dynamic young pianist who has been winning acclaim for her recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, joined the orchestra for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Wang’s technique is dazzling, and she lets you know it. It was one of the more high-octane takes on Ravel you could ever hope to hear — glittering and sparkling as it raced from start to finish. Great fun, but the orchestra (the wind section, in particular) was sometimes left gasping in the dust and so, to these ears, was some of the music’s character, which needs a little more room to breathe.
Dvorak’s richly melodic Symphony No. 8 closed the program. It was a wise choice. Lü Jia has built his reputation in opera and has a great feel for the kind of outsized drama and sweeping gestures that this symphony abounds in. The orchestra seemed fully in its element as well, turning in a big-boned reading full of soaring, thundering grace and exceptionally fine playing from the strings.
What, exactly, are they putting in the water at the Marlboro Music Festival?
Not only is the virtuosity of “Musicians From Marlboro” (an ensemble of festival alumni who tour the country every year) consistently jaw-dropping, but — as they showed Thursday night at the Freer Gallery — the freshness, rich imagination and sheer vitality of their playing is enough to make even the most jaded concertgoer edge to the front of his seat.
Take, for instance, the larger-than-life performance of Endre Szervánszky’s “Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola,” which opened the program. Hungarian to its bones, it’s a lyrical, earthy showpiece for the flute, steeped in folk melodies and unabashedly out to charm. Flutist Marina Piccinini’s enthusiasm for the work was infectious, and she turned in an extroverted and full-blooded performance, with Nikki Chooi on violin and the riveting violist Wenting Kang — who stood out even in a supporting role.
Harpist Sivan Magen and the Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian joined Piccinini for the far more delicate “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp” by Claude Debussy. Evanescent and chimerical, it shimmers with the exotic colors of a dream — and bares, from time to time, a set of sharp and elegant fangs. Piccinini’s playing captured that hallucinatory sense of the work, dancing over Magen’s deft acrobatics on the harp, while Kashkashian grounded it all with a darker, complex and sometimes wonderfully savage approach.
György Kurtág is one of the most gifted composers of this or any other era, and his string quartet Op. 28 from 1989 — the “Officium Breve in Memoriam Andreae Szervánszky” — is among his most deeply moving works. Spare, suggestive and aphoristic, the work’s 15 brief movements form a profound meditation on death and loss, closing with a hymn-like movement that ends — almost heartbreakingly — in mid-phrase. Kashkashian and Chooi were joined by David McCarroll on violin and cellist Karen Ouzounian for an exceptionally thoughtful reading of this searing and flawless work.
Beethoven’s String Quintet in C, Op. 29, closed the program, and if you like middle-period Beethoven — lively, charming, a little rambunctious, without the vertiginous depths of his later music — then you were in luck. McCarroll set the tone with a light, fluid touch, and feisty interplay among all the players made for a spirited end to the evening.
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players can always be counted on for intriguing programming and virtuosic playing, and Sunday afternoon’s season-opening concert at the Terrace Theater was no exception. Juxtaposing three works by Debussy, Charles Ives and Camille Saint-Saëns — all written within a decade of each other yet all strikingly different — the ensemble opened a window into the musical crosscurrents at play in the early 20th century, as modernism was slowly gathering steam.
The group is made up of players from the National Symphony Orchestra. The afternoon provided a welcome opportunity to hear Adriana Horne, the orchestra’s fine, new principal harpist, in a more intimate setting. With Aaron Goldman on flute and Daniel Foster on viola, Horne delivered a refined, sensual reading of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp from 1915, a work of delicate hues and elusive, ambiguous ideas, like a dream in a perfumed garden. The playing was impeccable (Goldman’s rich, flavorful tone is always a pleasure), although to these ears, the performance often felt a little too considered, even a bit earthbound, and it lacked the spontaneity and weightlessness, and the elegant savagery just below the surface, that brings this work to life.
Ives’s three-movement Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano was written just a few years earlier than the Debussy, but it seems to come from a different planet entirely. As robust and earthy as the Debussy is delicate, the piece is built around a scherzo that explodes with wild, what-the-hell exuberance. But the work’s real heart is its profoundly spiritual closing movement, and the ensemble — violinist Marissa Regni, with David Hardy on cello and Lambert Orkis at the piano — turned in a fearless reading, as authentic and probing as you could ever hope to hear.
Regni and Horne returned for Saint-Saëns’s “Fantaisie” for Violin and Harp, Op. 124, from 1907. The piece is not exactly a searing look into the composer’s soul — pretty much the opposite, in fact — but it provided a gentle, lyrical respite before the closing work of the afternoon, Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D, Op. 70. Known as the “Ghost” trio for its eerie middle movement, it received an evocative, richly detailed and utterly convincing reading, from the extroverted outer movements to the strange and ominous Largo at its core.
Draped in silk, her fingers lit with tiny blue lights, Margaret Leng Tan — one of the most formidable pianists in modern music — marched with great stateliness to the stage at the Hill Center on Wednesday night, clanging a set of miniature cymbals before her. Stepping over a bed of plastic toys at her feet, she folded herself regally before a tiny toy piano — not easy for anyone over the age of 6 — and launched into what may be the most singular classical concert in Washington this season: serious contemporary music, composed entirely for toys.
Tan (who’s been dubbed “Queen of the Toy Piano” by The New York Times) has almost single-handedly inspired a wave of young composers to start writing for toy instruments, and Wednesday’s concert showcased a range of new music as complex as it was playful. Almost all of it was written in the past decade, and much of it, including John Kennedy’s “The Winged Energy Of Delight” (for toy cymbals, toy piano and sandpaper blocks) and Monica Pearce’s “Clangor” (for toy piano and bicycle bells), was written specifically for Tan.
There were theatrical pieces (Tan raps herself violently across the knuckles with a squeaky plastic hammer in David Wolfson’s “Twinkle, Dammit!”) and outright funny ones, such as Jed Distler’s compression of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle into a 60-second tour de force, or James Joslin’s “Für Enola,” a sort of duet for toy piano and jack-in-the-box. Some tapped directly into the nostalgia that toys evoke; Phyllis Chen’s “Carousel” and “Cobwebbed Carousel” (for toy piano and hand-cranked music box) were poignant and quietly atmospheric. Still others — particularly the colorful “Toy Symphony” by Jorge Torres Sáenz — left little doubt of either Tan’s keyboard virtuosity or her poetic imagination; few musicians have played bird whistles, mechanical crickets and a 37-key piano (all simultaneously) with such delicate insight.
Much of that might sound gimmicky, even a bit twee. But Tan treated even the most comical works with dignity and respect — no easy task when you’re wearing a plastic Brunhild helmet — and in the end, her slightly awkward stage presence only added to the beguiling charm of the evening. This was no gimmick; it felt more like an invitation to innocence, and a rather wonderful second childhood.
Artists, writers and composers have always kept an eye on each others’ work, looking for inspiration, insight or just ideas to poach. The Phillips Collection’s new exhibit, “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music,” explores those crosscurrents in the Paris and Brussels of the late 19th century, and the museum opened its annual concert season Sunday afternoon with works by Gabriel Fauré, César Franck and Germaine Tailleferre, composers of the same general period as the pointillist painters.
The concert (by members of the Phillips Camerata) began with Fauré’s Theme and Variations for Piano, Op. 73, a work from 1895 that, in its delicate, shifting interplay of color and light, perhaps best reflected the pointillist spirit. Pianist Irina Nuzova turned in an utterly beguiling performance, with a deft, near-weightless touch that allowed each variation to blossom and evolve effortlessly into the next. It was a genuinely poetic performance, from a pianist of uncommon gifts.
A quartet led by violinist Olivia Hajioff followed with Tailleferre’s youthful String Quartet. Written in 1919, the piece came a good 20 years after the neo-impressionist heyday, but never mind: Any excuse to hear this gifted composer, who’s never quite risen to the stature she deserves, is welcome. Tailleferre was a friend of Maurice Ravel’s, and her quartet echoes his more famous one in many ways. But it’s a wonderfully imaginative, vivid work in its own right — full of color, sensuality and unusual textures — and Hajioff’s lean, intelligent playing brought it very much alive.
The most passionate playing of the afternoon, though, came in Franck’s String Quartet in D, from 1889. The work is lush, lyrical and thoroughly romantic, and the ensemble gave it a suitably windswept (and often stormy) reading, from the sweeping opening to the anguished Larghetto to the explosive finale, with its virtuosic interplay among all the players. The superb Karen Johnson on first violin — whose tone is so full and rich you could cut it with a knife — played with absolute confidence and ferocity.
Move over, Schroeder. Margaret Leng Tan, the formidable, pathbreaking virtuoso of the modern piano, is coming to town for an evening of cutting-edge 21st-century music. But instead of the usual Steinway, Tan will be packing two miniature toy pianos — as well as plastic hammers, toy whistles, rattles, spinning tops, hand-cranked music boxes, miniature cymbals and even an old Melitta coffee can or two — for an all-toy program that, she says, will turn the dry and often forbidding world of modern music on its ear.
“It’s really very subversive,” Tan says with a mischievous laugh. “This music thumbs its nose at all that academic contemporary music that takes itself so seriously.”
In fact, Tan’s one-woman “Clangor!” program (at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital on Wednesday night) at first glance looks like something a bunch of precocious, overcaffeinated 6-year-olds might put together. Composer Jed Distler mashes all 16 hours of Richard Wagner’s operatic “Ring” cycle into a single minute on the toy piano, while James Joslin’s “Fur Enola” weaves a spinning top and a jack-in-the-box into a complex atonal toy piano score. David Wolfson’s “Twinkle, Dammit!” evokes the joy of childhood piano lessons with an ominous plastic hammer, while the virtuosic “Toy Symphony” from Mexican composer Jorge Torres Sáenz calls on Tan to play the toy piano and no fewer than 16 other toys.
But for all its playful, pianists-just-wanna-have-fun spirit, Tan says the fast-growing world of “toy” music is just as serious and meaningful as anything in her more “grown-up” repertoire. “Composers love writing for instruments where there are no rules,” she says. “And the music is very seductive. It’s a way to get people to listen to new music — and like it!”
Tan should know. She’s been the world’s most die-hard champion of the toy piano since 1993, when she picked one up in a thrift shop in New York to perform John Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano” at a festival at Lincoln Center.
Tan, at that point, was among the most highly-regarded interpreters of contemporary music in the country, a close associate of composers from George Crumb to Cage himself, and an inventive instrumentalist who vastly expanded the sounds that could be conjured from inside the piano.
But the Lincoln Center performance woke her to the strange allure of the toy piano, whose innocent, bell-like, but quietly aggressive tone seems to evoke childhood in all its complexity.
“I was stretching the boundaries of the piano so much that I fell off the edge — and landed on the toy piano!” she says. “And I realized that, with what Cage did with that beguiling and guileless little piece, the toy piano had the potential to be a real instrument.”
That seemed unlikely, to say the least. Invented in 1872 as an educational tool, the toy piano never aspired to much — “no adult would deign to play it as a real instrument,” Tan says — and with metal bars rather than strings producing the sound, it was more of a repackaged glockenspiel than an actual piano. After a heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, it sank into obscurity, and few adults can still say they played one as a child — not even Tan herself, who grew up in Singapore in the late 1940s. “I would have looked on one,” she says, “with great disdain.”
Undaunted, Tan began commissioning new works and making her own transcriptions of “adult” piano pieces. Taking her cue from Schroeder, the Beethoven-obsessed toy pianist from “Peanuts,” she started with the “Moonlight” sonata, and by 1997 had enough material to release a CD. “The Art of the Toy Piano” quickly became a media sensation, raved about from Billboard to the BBC, and Tan found herself crowned (as the New York Times dubbed her) “The Queen of the Toy Piano.”
Queen or not, Tan seemed to be reigning over a toy piano renaissance. She toured the world, playing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Beethoven’s house in Bonn, and released another album in 2010 to as much acclaim as the first. Meanwhile, a flood of young composers and pianist had taken up the cause, writing music for an ever-expanding range of toys. Audiences loved it. By 2012, several toy music festivals (notably the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival, directed by composer Phyllis Chen) had been launched, and new works — including Ranjit Bhatnagar’s edible toy piano (it’s made of gelatin and fruit, and has electrodes embedded in the keys) — began to pour in.
The surge of interest “has really inspired composers to create some fabulous pieces,” Tan says. For her own part, she’s still pushing the boundaries, expanding her arsenal of musical toys (she has hundreds of them in her Brooklyn apartment, along with six dogs and close to 30 toy pianos), preparing her third album of toy music, and working on a major new work for toys by Phyllis Chen called “A Cabinet of Curiosities,” to be premiered at the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence next year.
It’s also Tan’s 70th birthday next year, and her evolution from piano virtuoso to (as she now describes herself) “a damn good multi-toy instrumentalist,” seems to have left her delighted, if slightly bemused.
“I’m the first woman to graduate from Juilliard with a doctorate — and now I play the toy piano!” she says, laughing. “The world works in strange and mysterious ways.”
‘Clangor’ Margaret Leng Tan’s 90-minute toy music performance takes place Oct. 8 at 7:30 pm at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at door. See www.pianojazz.com/hillcenter.htm for more information.
The relaxed, almost casual recital on Saturday night by All Points West — a young chamber music collective of D.C. area musicians — opened with an invitation you don’t usually hear in the concert hall: Turn on your cellphone, update your Facebook page and tweet to your heart’s content. It’s part of the group’s philosophy of “breaking down the barriers” between performers and audiences, and to that admirable end the space at the Atlas Performing Arts Center was outfitted with café tables and chairs, the players sat more-or-less in the laps of the audience, and at least one listener arrived with a bottle of wine.
It was a pleasant change from the often starchy conventions of classical music, and a fitting launch to the all-night Nuit Blanche DC arts festival taking place across the city. And the program — two youthful works by Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, written in Paris in the anything-goes years after World War I — was well chosen too, balancing Parisian sophistication with Russian earthiness. So far, so good.
But informality has its pitfalls, and in the middle of the opening movement of Prokofiev’s intricate “Quintet in G minor, Op. 39,” a dozen latecomers wandered in and stumbled around for seats as the musicians played — grounds for justifiable homicide at the Kennedy Center, and a reminder that formality can sometimes be a good thing. More important, the ensemble itself seemed not to take the performance all that seriously. Despite enthusiastic playing from several of the musicians, it was a plain and not very subtle performance — more of a quick run-through than a thoughtful interpretation — marred by ragged entrances, squishy intonation, almost no dynamic nuance and only occasional attention to detail.
The second half of the evening was given over to Stravinsky’s earthy, iconic “L’Histoire du Soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”), a music-theater work for seven players and narrator written in 1918. It’s the kind of piece that an imaginative young ensemble can really make their own — the music is fixed, but the many theatrical aspects are all up for grabs. All Points West dispensed with the theatrics, though, settling again for a basic, rough-and-ready reading of the score — full of enthusiasm and fun to listen to, but not much more than that.