When Margaret Leng Tan gets ready to play, it might remind you of a circus act or perhaps an upper level yoga pose. To play one of her toy pianos, tall, lanky Leng Tan folds herself onto a stool no more than six inches high. Once seated, she sits erect with the utmost seriousness. She […]
When Margaret Leng Tan gets ready to play, it might remind you of a circus act or perhaps an upper level yoga pose. To play one of her toy pianos, tall, lanky Leng Tan folds herself onto a stool no more than six inches high. Once seated, she sits erect with the utmost seriousness. She started her Present Music concert (Saturday at the Turner Hall Ballroom) with John Cage’s surprisingly lyrical “Dream,” a piece he composed for his frequent collaborator, choreographer Merce Cunningham. Instruments didn’t matter to Cage, and here Leng Tan played with a string quartet, which offered rich, full-blooded echoes in contrast to delicacies of her piano notes.
I’m not sure if Tan ever played “Dream” with Cage around, but she worked with Cage on several compositions, and it’s easy to see (and hear) why he was enamored with her and her toy pianos. The sound is remarkable: something between the pluck of a harpsichord and the ping of a glockenspiel. And it carries with it a tenderness and fragility that emanates from the sound itself, and from its associations with the innocence and playfulness of childhood.
That quality came through almost irregardless of the piece – from Philip Glass’s cool “Modern Love Waltz” to the solo pyrotechnics of Stephen Montague’s “Mirabella (a Tarentella)” to the playful goofiness of Erik Griswold’s “Old McDonald’s Yellow Submarine,” which adds bicycle horns and percussion into the mix.
For the most part, Tan’s approach is traditional – she plays songs and notes on her instrument. But Chinese composer Ge Gan-ru’s “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!” was more soundscape than melody, deploying instruments like a zither with water-glass-created vibrato, toy whistles, and – in the piece’s quiet and moving climax – the sound of live crickets.
PM Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim made Tan the centerpiece of the concert, but also included some pieces that offered interesting contrasts. The second movement of John Adams String Quartet is incessant in its rhythms, with surprisingly atonal melodic flights. Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round, a tribute and embodiment of Astor Piazolla’s Nuevo Tango, is appropriately as much duel as dance. Two string quartets literally face off, standing on opposite sides of the stage with a single bass between them, like a bulky bouncer or referee. There’s nothing delicate here, and the PM players dug into the parts like a dancer’s heel scraping over a rough plank floor.