Friday, November 2, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "A Queen of the Piano" (on Margaret Leng Tan)

a queen of the piano
by Douglas Messerli

Margaret Leng Tan Curios (by Phyllis Chen) and Metamorphoses (Book I) (by George Crumb) / the concert I attend at REDCAT was on November 1, 2018

At the wonderful REDCAT performance space in the heart of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, I saw a performance by Margaret Leng Tan, often described as “the queen on the toy pianos.” Well, if there is a queen of such small instruments, it must surely be Tan, yet I cannot help but feel that in describing her as such, it somehow diminishes her immense talents.     
     There is no doubt that Tan is often playful—in all senses—particularly in the first work of the evening while performing Phyllis Chen’s Curios, what the program describes as a “cabinet of curiosities,” which, in this case, connects with the German circus and carnival traditions (although it also appears in several French works, such as Jean Renoir’s famed film Rules of the Game, in one of the central figure’s collection of mechanical musical instruments, perhaps a nod to the war that Germany was soon to engage with France). Here Tan, playing the comic-musician, dons various costumes, winds us various toys which briefly march across the performance space, blows on a mini-pipe organ, chirps out a bird whistle, and plays her famed toy pianos, all with such a whimsical joy that you can only be convinced that this “cabinet,” at least, is filled with a clownish spirit that is highly worth listening to.
     The real gems of the evening, however, are to come in George Crumb’s evocative  Metamorphoses-evoked work which, a bit like Mussorgsky’s too oft-performed Pictures at an Exhibition, steals images from modernist painting, but takes them in entirely new directions—with images from Paul Klee, Vincent van Gough, Marc Chagall, James McNeill Whistler, Jasper Johns, Salvador Dalí, and Vasily Kandinsky performed mostly on amplified toy pianos and, after an intermission, on a grand Steinway, with prepared piano and grand swirls of musical composition on keyboard, along with accompanying moans, grunts and squeals by this remarkable artist, with its highly memorable Perilous Night, a response to Jasper Johns’ 1990 composition itself a response to John Cage’s 1944 composition.      
     Despite her wonderful toy-piano playing, I can only say that the second half of Tan’s concert on this particular evening, mostly with her playing, in very John Cagean, but with highly original Crumb techniques, the embedded strings of the instrument (in one instance, apparently, forcing her for a short period off the stage for a temporary finger or finger-nail injury).
     I’ve never been a true admirer of Chagall’s painting The Fiddler, but in Crumb’s experimental rendition, the fiddle strummed upon the piano’s innards created an entirely new vision, reinforced, moments later, with the very slightly Jewish-inspired chords Tan played out on the keyboard.
     If Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, with its melting clock faces, is not your favorite vision of contemporary art, Crumb, with Tan’s great artistry, plucks up an evocative sense of finitude and loss of something slightly now slightly out of reach, reiterating that memory is simply something that needs to be recaptured and reiterated.
     The Tahitian death chant of Gaugin’s rather terrifying Contes barbares, sung by Tan as she performs, is a slightly sinister and horrifying movement into the grave.
     The little Blue Rider of Kandinsky’s work, in Crumb’s insistence and in Tan’s performance, rides into the landscape so forcefully that you simply have to applaud his presence upon the much larger space unto which he has launched himself. He is a hero, in this musical version, in the making, a figure on the verge of reality which in his relentless rhythmic forward drive forces himself upon the scene.
      The span of the toy to the grand, prepared, piano, in short, represents a world in Tan’s significant shifts throughout her theatrically-gifted performance. that spans the comic to the tragic, moving from a world of childish wonderment to a deep immersion into the human psychology.
      If Tan is a queen, it is of total piano performance. The “toy” is only the half of it.

Los Angeles, November 2, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2018).     

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