Concert Review: Re:SOUND presents TOY TOY TOY! with Margaret Leng Tan, 14 Sept 2018

Josef Haydn (attributed) – Toy Symphony
Stephen Montague – Mirabella (a Tarantella) (1995)
Stephen Montague – Raga Capriccio (2007)
Erik Satie – Gymnopédie No. 3 (1888) arranged by Milos Raickovich
Philip Glass – Modern Love Waltz (1977) arranged by Milos Raickovich
John Cage – Dream (1948) arranged by Margaret Leng Tan
Toby Twining – Nightmare Rag (1995) version for toy piano and string quartet (2010)
Erik Griswold – Gossamer Wings (2013)
Michael Wookey – Coney Island Sous l’Eau (2013)
Stephen Montague – A Toy Symphony (arr. 2018)

Margaret Leng Tan, Queen of the Toy Piano
Re:SOUND Collective

14 September 2018
YST Conservatory Concert Hall

Review by Aileen Tang

Known as the “Queen of the Toy Piano”, New York-based Singaporean Margaret Leng Tan was the first woman to graduate with a Doctorate from The Juilliard School. Tan gives performances around the world on her collection of toy pianos and released her pioneering album, The Art of the Toy Piano, in 1997. And indeed, Tan takes her art very seriously – far from the instrument’s deceptive moniker would suggest.

Re:SOUND’s latest offering Toy, Toy, Toy! is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the exclamations of well wishes in opera, Toi, toi, toi. Featuring a programme comprising various pieces for toy piano and two Toy Symphonies – the one commonly attributed to Haydn and Stephen Montague’s A Toy Symphony – one might be forgiven for thinking that it is a light concert, or even something you can bring your young cousins too. As if to affirm that suspicion, a collection of toy instruments made their guest appearances throughout the 2-hour concert which boasted 8 Asian premieres.

The music, though, turned out to be far from child’s play.

It was as if one had stumbled on an aviary in the Toy Symphony-attributed-to-Josef-Haydn, the only piece on the programme which did not feature the toy piano. A ratchet and bells joined the re:SOUND chamber orchestra, with a nightingale whistle, cuckoo call and bassoon reed making up the bird sounds which added delightful twitters and trills – almost Disney-esque – to the minute symphony’s charm. While the audience was understandably more interested in the toy instruments, it was the real instruments’ graceful lilts and lively energy which made for a pleasing start to the concert. If anything, it was the ratchet which was slightly too loud and thus distracting – though that might very well be deliberate. The 2nd movement revealed a less coordinated orchestra. The toy trumpet made its cheeky entrances, interrupting the proceedings, and the cuckoo call was woven in so effectively that it sounded less of a toy than an actual wind instrument. The same could not be said for the bassoon reed though. In its imitation of a bird call – which one would imagine being very difficult to control – the imagery was disturbingly one of a bird being strangled. On the other hand, the rushed tempo of the 3rd movement evoked pictures of migrating birds.

Tan and her toy piano then took centre stage as murmurs of excitement and awe buzzed around the concert hall when the toy piano was being carried – like a child’s toy – onto the stage. The 1st of the 2 solo pieces, Stephen Montague’s Mirabella (a Tarantella), immediately affirmed in the audience’s mind why Tan is known as a Toy Piano virtuoso. It hardly seemed possible that so many notes could come from such a small keyboard. The sound was metallic and mechanistic, yet Tan was able to coax a narrow range of nuanced dynamics from it. The virtuosic passages were presented with aplomb, urged on by an exhilarating rhythmic drive that was never out of control even in the accelerando sections.

The 2nd piece by the same composer, Raga Capriccio is based on a raga (a 5-note Indian scale) called Jog, and is performed with a recorded tape accompaniment. The looping, overlapping melodies and textures created a fascinating soundscape in which the influence of Indian music was evident. When playing with a tape, timing is crucial and Tan shared with the audience that just that afternoon, her trusty stop watch had died, leaving her resigned to using a phone instead. There was no sign of any displacement of music though, with the only interruption being a slight mishap with the keys.

The rest of the 1st half saw Tan performing alongside Loh Jun Hong, Siew Yi Li, Jonathan Lee and Theophilus Tan in the Asian premieres of 4 pieces arranged for toy piano and string quartet. While the main focus was on Tan, the string quartet must be credited for its rich, full tones and excellent coordination which sadly did not always extend to the toy piano. Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 3 and Philip Glass’ Modern Love Waltz were both arranged by Milos Raikovich. The refreshing take on Satie’s famous melody began with the string quartet gently weaving in atmospheric lines before the entry of the toy piano brought the music to a crawl with the cello almost overpowering the ensemble with its drone-like sighs. The coordination between toy piano and string quartet was a little jagged in this piece, but was much more successful in the Modern Love Waltz, in which the 2 toy pianos (yes, a 2nd had been added to the mix) and string quartet took turns to command the music. The timbre of the 2 toy pianos were quite different – the one on Tan’s right sounding brighter and more metallic, while the other on her left producing a more resonant sound.

John Cage’s Dream and Toby Twining’s Nightmare Rag had a more fun, less serious vibe to them. Dream started off as a solo for toy piano with almost tango-like inflections, later augmented by the addition of Double Bass – played by Wang Xu – to the ensemble. The Bass’ pizzicato took the place of the toy piano’s tinkering melodies in the 2nd section, before the layers of sounds from all the instruments were combined in the 3rd section. Nightmare Rag, with its mischievous allusions to The Addams Family, invited audience participation by way of timed finger snaps after the familiar rising 4-note jingle. The strings exuded a lazy charm with a little harmless sleaze from the violins, while the toy piano continued on its optimistic, light-hearted rush of notes. This amusing ragtime-infused piece was unfortunately let down by a hasty conclusion rather than a concerted flourish.

Erik Griswold’s Gossamer Wings started the 2nd half of the concert. Its 3 movements each exhibited a different mood, reflecting influences from Debussy, Stravinsky and Cole Porter. “Spinning” with its dance-like inflections saw the winds and strings conversing in intertwining layers of whirls and swirls, while responding to the toy piano’s spinning motifs. The evocative cello in “Suspended” was almost mournful before giving way to the ensemble’s more carefree section. For “Moon Dancing”, the percussionist took his place at a toy drum set in a syncopation-driven movement.

Michael Wookey’s Coney Island Sous l’Eau (literally “Coney Island under the water”) was the most musically satisfying piece of the programme in its lush combination of melody and sound effects. Inspired by the effects of Hurricane Sandy on Coney Island in New York, the piece is scored by 2 toy pianos and “a small, mostly toy orchestra”. Perhaps the selection of toy instruments on stage was insufficient and so even the bona fide real instruments were played  – rapping on the body of string instruments – to sound like toys. There were moments when the music sounded as though it came right out of a film sound track, evoking images of the beach and amusement park’s helpless flooding and subsequent rejuvenation. The 2 toy pianos in the middle section delicately channelled the innocence of the music box, adding to the picturesque appeal of the work, before concluding in a cacophony of toys sounding much like the hurricane herself.

The finale of the concert was a new arrangement of Montague’s A Toy Symphony by the composer himself, who also conducted this performance which included 6 guest players on toy instruments (a 7th – Tan on toy piano – was the reason for the new version). As with Nightmare Rag, this piece invited – or rather demanded – audience participation, preceded by a rehearsal of sorts in which Montague gave instructions on how to produce “white noise” and bird songs. The work’s 3 movements form a “musical snapshot of [the composer’s] childhood recollections”. “Noisy Toys, Slow Afternoon” sounded like a farcical take on the heroic, majestic brass fanfares common to both the largest Classical-Romantic symphonies and John Williams’ film scores, rudely interrupted by a smattering of toy instruments crawling out. The release of balloons at the end of the movement had both visual and auditory impact. “Sad Toys in the Attic Stir After Midnight” sounded like a sci-fi movie, heightened by the audience’s “white noise” (actually all “shh” sounds) being conducted like waves of wind chimes. In contrast, “Ghost March, Tin Soldiers at Dawn” was highly percussive, with the march theme proudly exerted in the brass and winds. Strains similar to the film score from “Pirates of the Caribbean” could be heard – courtesy of the cellos and timpani.

I attended the concert bearing no expectations and was amazed at the surprisingly wide range of genres and styles presented. While the timbre of the star – the toy piano – largely stayed the same, it was Tan’s subtlety of touch that made the difference, from delicate whispers to precise toccatas to dramatic flourishes. But perhaps Tan would say shame on me, for considering the toy piano to be any less than its more real – or at least common – counterpart.

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