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.
Franz Kafka may have been largely ignored in his own lifetime, but his novels — and the sense of dread and alienation they evoke — came to have an extraordinary impact on the 20th century mind. So it was intriguing to hear pianist Lara Downes at the Embassy of the Czech Republic on Thursday evening, playing music by Czech composers who endured the rising totalitarianism that Kafka’s writing seemed to presage — and who were either killed by it or forced into decades of exile.
Perhaps the most tragic of these was Erwin Schulhoff, who produced an astonishingly innovative body of work — including the “Suite Dansante en Jazz,” which Downes opened with — before dying in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. The six-movement suite is an earthy, slow-burning piece from 1931, bluesy at its heart but imbued with edgy, wildly colored, often brilliant ideas, and Downes gave it a fine reading — more thoughtful than sensual, maybe, but very engaging.
She followed with Andre Singer’s “Nine Parables to Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika,’ ” which alternated short passages from Kafka’s enigmatic 1914 novel with equally enigmatic and expressive musical fragments — a fascinating work from Singer (who was forced into exile in the 1930s) that seemed to capture a complex and Kafkaesque world where nothing is what it seems to be. Robert Rehak and Mary Fetzco delivered the written passages with aplomb.
Jaroslav Jezek’s lovely “Svita” (Shining) — famous for boosting Czech morale during World War II — provided a few moments of sunshine, as did five of Bohuslav Martinů’s “Etudes and Polkas.” Written in exile (where the composer spent much of his life), these brief pieces seemed to evoke both the freedom of a new world and nostalgia for the old; a poignant glimpse into the heart of the exiled composer.
The final work on the program was the biggest, but, to these ears anyway, the least satisfying. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a remarkable prodigy, and his Sonata No. 2 in E Major, Op. 2, written when he was all of 13 years old, is a remarkable accomplishment for an adolescent, technically accomplished and ambitious in every way. That said, it’s really just a noisy show-off piece, full of heroic chest-pounding and thundering charges up and down the keyboard, anchored by a Largo con Dolore that fairly wallows in adolescent woe. Downes — who admitted that Korngold was “the new love of my life” — gave the thing an impassioned performance, but it was her insights into the more complex, understated and subtle works on the program that more deeply impressed.
It’s enough of a treat to hear Jenny Lin, Lura Johnson or Audrey Andrist perform — but to have all three pianists on the same stage, as they were on Sunday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is just a spectacular abundance of talent. The three are members of the contemporary music ensemble Verge, and as part of the museum’s Steinway Series they presented an afternoon of 20th century Russian music that ranged from youthful works by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin to Igor Stravinsky’s earth-shaking piano reduction of his score to “The Rite of Spring.”
Rachmaninoff’s “Valse and Romance” for six hands, written when the composer was all of 17, is dedicated to three girls his own age — and as you might expect, it’s a charming and lyrical work, which received an affectionate reading from all six hands involved. But things got substantially more interesting in Stravinsky’s “Piano Sonata” from 1924, played by Lin. It’s a remarkable work, steeped in baroque and classical-era music but with a grin behind the counterpoint that keeps it always fresh, a little off balance, always surprising. Lin — who just released a superb recording of all Stravinsky’s piano music — turned in a sharp-edged reading full of her own distinct brand of quiet, intent ferocity.
Scriabin’s brooding little “Etude in C-sharp minor, Op 2., No. 1” is another teenaged work, and Andrist played it with poignancy and tenderness. Johnson’s riveting account of Prokofiev’s “Sonata No. 7, Op. 83,” though, really stole the show. It’s a complex, subversive work, written in 1942 after the arrest and subsequent death of a friend of the composer’s, and Johnson looked unflinchingly into its anguished depths.
The second half of the program was devoted to something of a musical footnote: the piano version of Stravinsky’s orchestral ballet “The Rite of Spring,” which was used for the dance rehearsals before the 1913 premiere. The Rite is a work of almost unparalleled orchestral color — and one of the great symphonic experiences of all time — so to hear it stripped to its bones was at first a little disconcerting, as if hearing it over the telephone. But Johnson and Andrist gave it a thundering performance, capturing the Rite’s jagged rhythms and driving, elemental power, and by the end you half expected the piano to be in pieces on the floor.
There may be few more fascinating periods in music than the turn of the 20th century, when romanticism began giving way to impressionism, expressionism and all the other “isms” of the modern world. The fine young pianist Sara Daneshpour made that period the focus of a colorful and beautifully conceived concert at the American Art Museum on Sunday afternoon, tying the romantic lyricism of Granados and Franck to the tone-painting of Ravel and the raw explosiveness of Prokofiev — and playing it all with stunning virtuosity and verve.
A D.C. native still in her 20s, Daneshpour opened the afternoon quietly with a poised, utterly clear and graceful performance of Haydn’s Sonata in F Hob. XVI:16 — a delight to the ears, like virtually everything Haydn wrote. But the Haydn was merely a prelude to Maurice Ravel’s still-astonishing suite of tone poems, “Gaspard de la nuit.”
Written in 1908, it’s a masterpiece of early expressionism, from the shimmering water effects of “Ondine” to the tolling bells and morbid brooding of “Le gibet” (“The Scaffold”) and the taut, menacing “Scarbo” — not only one of the most colorful works in the piano literature (its range of sonorities is astounding), but also one of the most difficult to play. Daneshpour brought it off flawlessly, with both the virtuosic touch she had shown in the Haydn and a rich, imaginative sense of color and dramatic pace.
Sergei Prokofiev wrote his Toccata Op. 11 just a few years after Gaspard appeared, but it’s a much different work that builds driving, repeated notes into an unstoppable powerhouse. Daneshpour turned in one of the strongest and most purposeful readings you could hope to hear, throwing herself into the work for a bravura performance. But she showed a different side of herself in the more introspective “El Amor y la Muerta: Balada” (The Ballad of Love and Death”) by Enrique Granados, the fifth in his “Goyescas” piano suite of 1911. Deeply lyrical, suffused with sorrow and longing, it’s a work whose loose, unpredictable phrasing gives it an almost improvisational feel, and Daneshpour gave it a straight-from-the-heart reading.
Two earlier works — Alexander Scriabin’s “Sonata-Fantasy No. 2” from 1898, and Cesar Franck’s much-loved “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” from 1884 — closed the program and linked it to late-19th century romanticism. The two-movement Scriabin sonata — a sort of tone poem evoking the ocean — is as impressionistic as it is romantic, and Daneshpour played it with extraordinary sensitivity and a subtle sense of color. Franck’s Bach-influenced “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” is a masterpiece if there ever was one: intellectually weighty, emotionally complex, and containing an almost monumental sense of power. Daneshpour gave it superb reading, and when called back for an encore, she played a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti with all the deft precision and clarity she had brought to the Haydn.