Tom Strini
Present Music

Margaret Leng Tan’s mischief and mystery

By - Jan 9th, 2011 01:00 am
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Margaret Leng Tan and her toy pianos, at Present Music Jan. 8. Robert Bundy photo for TCD.

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, Present Music‘s guest star on this program at Turner Hall, took virtuosa turns in Stephen Montague’s Mirabella (a Tarantella) and Toby Twining’s toy-piano arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, which quickly builds to speedy figuration at the highest volume Tan could wring from a baby baby-grand. The toy piano is really more like a glockenspiel with keyboard linkage and some damping. So ringing overtones built up crazily and the clatter of the action competed with the pitch. Both elements were surely in Montague’s and Twining’s minds; their music clattered merrily along like an rattletrap VW bus down a bumpy mountain road.

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.

Bassist Andrew Raciti with Tan in Toby Twining’s “Nightmare Rag.” Robert Bundy photo for TCD.

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.

0 thoughts on “Present Music: Margaret Leng Tan’s mischief and mystery”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tom . . . While I could understand your review if Margaret Leng Tan had been sitting in one’s living room with her collection of musical ‘toys’, but from someone sitting not as close as you in the poor accoustic’s of Turner Hall – her performance came across more strained, poorly mixed and unbalanced. The arrangements were choppy and her demeanor more of a less rehearsed artist with technical issues related to her instruments. Her charm was apparent, but came more from nervous embarassment – or so it seemed.

    I usually enjoy Present Music’s resident artists and their interpretations of modern works (John Adams, etc.), but this concert event was more hype than what was ultimately delivered. Even the more familiar Eleanor Rigby interpretation was choppy and very muddy in parts. Thankfully her toy piano skills – which are considerable – shone best when accompanied by the PM ‘house ensemble’.

    Sorry, you wrote a very nice and creative review . . . but the concert made for a long evening. Not up to the ‘hype’ or the standards met by previous more typical Present Music’s shows.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tim, thanks very much for your comment. I can imagine that the hall might be spotty, acoustically. I can only say what I heard where I was, which was fine. But I also think that part of the aesthetic involves reining in the ear, of quieting down to live at a lower volume. — T.

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