Margaret Leng Tan’s mischief and mystery
The yips, growls and mewling melodies rising from Margaret Leng Tan’s voice matched the exotic qualities of the toy piano, toy concertina, mistuned zither, miniature xylophone, bird whistle and other noisemakers at hand for Ge Gan-Ru’s Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! Saturday evening (Jan. 8).
Ge’s piece unfolds in brief, aphoristic episodes over maybe 14 minutes. Tan performed without a score, and you might have thought she was just making stuff up unless you listened closely. Rhythms recurred, timbres were arranged just so. Each sonic and physical gesture felt specific and calculated. The cartoonish sound world of the piece spun within a meditative atmosphere. The big, live room and the packed-in audience became more and more quiet as the piece went on. At the very end, Tan opened a little box, from which emanated the sound of crickets chirping. The moral of the story: Listen, and a world of small miracles will open to you.
Tan made her early reputation as an interpreter of John Cage’s music for prepared pianos. Saturday, she played Cage’s faux-naive Dream, from 1948, with a string quartet added by arranger Milos Raickovich. Philip Glass’ witty Modern Love Waltz (1977) got the same treatment, and both works made their theoretical points while extending ear-friendly charm. Dream‘s aesthetic descends from Satie, and Tan made the connection with Gymnopedie #3, also in a Raickovich arrangement for toy piano and string quartet. Twining’s Nightmare Rag, freshly arranged for this combination plus string bass, is an expert, traditional, genteel rag, with all the right harmonies plus a dollop of glissando horror effects and allusions to The Addams Family TV theme.
Of all the Tan works, my favorite was three movements from Erik Griswold’s Old McDonald’s Yellow Submarine (2004). This is cheeky, wacky, theatrical music. In the Chooks! movement, Tan plays piano, rings a bicycle bell, blows on a train whistle, and honks a horn, all at a speedy clip amid motor rhythms. The music sounds funny, and its one-armed-wallpaper-hanger visual comedy works, too. In the last movement, Bicycle Lee Hooker, we find that blues-based funk sounds pretty good on toy piano. Pink Memories, by sharp contrast, starts as a joke and turns poignant: You mean she’s just going to crank a music-box works? That’s it? It turned out to be plenty, as Tan applied exquisite rubato to the gentle waltz tune as she cranked the little mechanism. Tan is a very good musician, with great rhythm and sensitivity to the most minute nuance. She is also a warm, funny stage presence; music is fun for her.
Tan aside, this was Strings Night at Present Music. Violinists Zhan Shu and Eric Segnitz, violist Erin Pipal and cellist Adrien Zitoun backed Tan and played the driving second movement from John Adams’ 2008 quartet with great energy and authority. Violinists Peter Vickery and Matt Albert, violist Olga Tuzhilkov and cellist Nicholas Photinas, joined them Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round (1996), for double quartet and double bass. Bassist Andrew Raciti was the music’s fulcrum; at one nifty theatrical moment, the music came to a halt and all the other players turned their eyes toward Raciti. He waited just long enough, then picked up the bass line to relaunch the piece.
Last Round, which weighs in around 12 minutes, sounds very much like an Astor Piazzolla tango. Golijov here shares with Piazzolla regular dance rhythms broken by intense song, a fondness for biting pick-up sixteenth notes and violin shrieks after the beat, and general atmosphere of dark passion. Last Round sounds like a homage to Piazzolla, but Golijov goes further in terms of structure and development that Piazzolla did. The two quartets call and respond and imitate in ever more complex and fascinating ways as the piece goes on, with the bass as the foundation for both. When the music rises to the heights of intensity, it falls into black despair. That’s the tango for you.