The Blues Master and the Prodigy

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 6, 2014

When Buddy Guy and Quinn Sullivan take the stage at the Birchmere on Monday night, it might not look, at first, like they have a whole lot in common.

There’s Guy, the legendary blues guitarist.  Born in 1936 to a sharecropper family in Louisiana, he built his first guitar out of baling wire and a piece of wood, took a bus to Chicago in the 1950’s to cut his teeth with Muddy Waters, and rose to global stardom with a fiery, anything-goes style that influenced superstars from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton.  At 78, he’s an undisputed giant of the blues — a six-time Grammy winner, a National Medal of the Arts honoree, and a musician Clapton himself once called “the best guitar player alive.”

Then there’s Sullivan.  He’s fifteen.  He lives with his parents in the comfortable suburb of New Bedford, Mass., where he’s a sophomore in high school.  He’s clean-cut, a bit awkward, almost painfully polite — the boy you want your daughter to date.   When he was little, he liked to dress up in a Sergeant Pepper outfit, in homage to his idol, John Lennon.

Quinn Sullivan • Photo by Chuck LanzaBut Quinn Sullivan may also be the most gifted guitar prodigy on the planet, a blues player of jaw-dropping virtuosity and depth who could turn out to be the Clapton of his generation.  With two albums under his belt, he’s already played everywhere from the Montreux Jazz Festival to Madison Square Garden, and shared a stage with B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks — as well Buddy Guy himself, who met the young player  seven years ago, took him under his wing, and has been touring with him ever since.

“Quinn’s the most amazing young man I’ve ever seen,” says Guy.  “His knowledge of the guitar is unbelievable, and he plays like someone thirty or forty or fifty years old, not like some kid.  He’s like lightening — he strikes you, and you have to stop and say, ‘What in the world is this?’”

Sullivan’s talent had been clear since the age of three, when he got his first guitar — a First Act acoustic — as a present, and started picking out songs by ear.  At an age when most kids are grappling with “Chopsticks,” he taught himself “Blackbird” and “Here Comes the Sun.”  

“I was a huge Beatles freak,” he says, laughing.  “Every Christmas I’d get a different outfit — the Sergeant Pepper, the white suit from Abbey Road — and that was really the start.  I would listen to their music, and try to play it.”

He began lessons two years later, and progressed so quickly that by six he’d been featured on a Boston news program, written his first song (“Sing, Dance, Clap Your Hands”), and performed on the Ellen Degeneres Show.  But it wasn’t a high-pressure childhood, he says.  His parents took him to a lot of concerts (his father is a former rock drummer), but other than that he just went to school, practiced when he felt like it, and sat in with the Toe Jam Puppet Band at the local zoo.  

“Instead of being with the kids dancing, I’d be up on stage playing along,” he says.  “That sort of sums up my childhood.”

But a DVD of Eric Clapton’s 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival opened Sullivan’s eyes to the blues, and to Buddy Guy himself, and when the famous bluesman turned up in New Bedford in early 2007 for a gig at the Zeiterion Theater, Sullivan’s father managed to get them backstage.  The boy — then all of eight years old — asked Guy to autograph the little Squier Stratocaster he’d brought along.  When Guy handed the guitar back, he asked the second-grader to show him what he could do.

“He asked me to play a few licks, and I did,” says Sullivan.  “And he said: ‘Be ready when I call you.’ I was, like — what?”

Midway through the show, Guy called Sullivan onstage, and for the next ten minutes (there’s a video online) the two traded licks as if they’d been playing together for years.  Shifting from style to style (a little Voodoo Child, a little Sweet Home Chicago), Guy tossed out tougher and tougher lines, as Sullivan — barely as tall as the amplifiers, but as cool as they come — tossed them right back.  The crowd roared.

Buddy Guy“I couldn’t believe the way he was playing,” says Guy. “He was playing Clapton, Hendrix, everybody. When I saw how good he was, I thought, ‘I’m gonna hit some of these licks and run you crazy.’  And man, the way that kid was playing it was like, ‘Show me something I don’t know, Buddy!’  And I said to his dad, ‘Somebody else needs to know this kid can play this well.’”  

It was the start of a high-powered apprenticeship. Guy began bringing Sullivan on tour with him, guiding his development, introducing him to other musicians and teaching him the business of music.  They played the Hollywood Bowl, the Apollo, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Experience Hendrix tour.  There were appearances on Oprah and The Today Show, and they played the Crossroads Guitar Festival together last year.  

And when Guy recorded his 2008 album “Skin Deep,” he brought Sullivan in for a solo on “Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes” — a sign, if any were still needed, that he saw Sullivan as his musical heir.  

“When you’re with him all the time, you learn so much,” says Sullivan, whose playing has matured, since that first meeting seven years ago, into a sophisticated, introspective style reminiscent of Clapton, but with a rougher edge and a turn-on-a-dime feeling of spontaneity.  “With Buddy, nothing’s planned out on stage,” he says.  “He hates set lists, and there’s a lot of improvising.  I kind of know what’s going to happen when I get up on stage — but sometimes he just messes with me.”

“To be honest with you, I can’t show him nothing!” says Guy, laughing.  “When I was that age, I didn’t even know how to play a radio.”

Sullivan’s starting to emerge from his mentor’s shadow.  He tours with Guy several months of the year, keeping up with high school through online courses. But he’s ditched the Beatles mop-top of his childhood, released two albums on his own — 2011’s “Cyclone”  and last year’s “Getting There”  — and has another in the works. And like Guy — who calls himself a “caretaker” of the blues —  he’s getting ready to bringing the blues to his own generation.

“Muddy, B.B. King, all the great musicians, told me: ‘Look son, keep it alive.  Keep it going,’” says Guy.  

“I’ve dedicated my life to this music.  And I think Quinn will do the same.”

Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014 at 01:44PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra at the Kennedy Center

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 4, 2014

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.

Yuja WangThe 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.

Posted on Monday, November 10, 2014 at 04:47PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Musicians From Marlboro at the Freer Gallery

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 17, 2014

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.

Marina PiccininiTake, 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.

Posted on Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 11:51AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Kennedy Center Chamber Players at the Terrace Theater

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 13, 2014

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 Kennedy Center Chamber Players include Lambert Orkis, David Hardy, Marissa Regni and Daniel Foster. (Margot Ingoldsby Schulman)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.

Posted on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at 10:00AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Margaret Leng Tan at the Hill Center

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 9, 2014

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.

Margaret Leng Tan, by Michael DamesTan (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.


Posted on Saturday, October 11, 2014 at 02:42PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Phillips Camerata at the Phillips Collection

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 6, 2014

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.

Irina NuzovaThe 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.

Posted on Wednesday, October 8, 2014 at 03:06PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Margaret Leng Tan reigns over a toy piano renaissance

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 3, 2014

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.”

Photo: Jim StandardIn 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.

John Cage at the piano“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 for more information.

Posted on Tuesday, October 7, 2014 at 12:13PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint