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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011

Margaret Leng Tan: Pianist in Toyland

Present Music brings visionary artist to Turner Hall Ballroom

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The enduring legacy of John Cage may well be less in the music he wrote than in the artists he inspired. One of the collaborators in the final years of his life, Margaret Leng Tan, is at the center of Saturday’s concert by Milwaukee’s world-known performers of what can oxymoronically be called contemporary classical music, Present Music. And at the heart of her performance is an instrument not normally taken seriously in classical or any music, the toy piano.

“I think she is the pioneer in giving the instrument more range. With her, it’s not just a joke for kids,” says Present Music’s artistic director, Kevin Stalheim.

A gifted pianist, the Singapore-born Tan studied at Juilliard and gravitated toward Cage’s circle because of the old master’s interest in the convergence of East and West in aesthetics and philosophy as well as music. Among other experiments in the seemingly random operations of music and silence, Cage pioneered the “prepared piano,” with screws, nuts and bolts inserted into the strings. Tan embraced Cage’s innovation as a pathway to new sounds.

“She is unbelievably meticulous,” Stalheim says. “She’ll prepare a piano for three to five hours before a concert.”

It was only a short leap from there to exploring the musical potential of the piano’s baby cousin. “I imagine her saying to Cage, ‘Mind if I play this piece on a toy piano?’” Stalheim adds.

Soon enough, Tan began commissioning composers to arrange existing pieces for toy piano or write new ones with the little instrument in mind.

“I’m attracted to unusual instruments and unusual sounds. It’s part and parcel of being Present Music,” says Stalheim, explaining that a concert with Tan has been on his mind for years.

Present Music’s upcoming program represents a cross-section of Tan’s toy repertoire. The Present Music ensemble alone will perform only two pieces, Osvaldo Golijov’s tango-inspired “Last Round” and John Adams’ String Quartet, Second Movement. Tan will be featured on everything else, including renditions of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 3 along with more recent work such as Toby Twining’s “Nightmare Rag,” Eric Griswold’s “Old McDonald’s Yellow Submarine,” Philip Glass’ “Modern Love Waltz” and Ge Gan-ru’s setting for a 12th-century Chinese poem, “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!” The concert opens with John Cage’s “Dream.” In addition to toy piano, Tan will play on a battery of bicycle bells and horns.

The breadth of the program is wide, but largeness of scope and the element of surprise have always been essential to Present Music. Some of the arrangements were still being written only weeks before the night of the concert. “Anytime you have a world premiere you won’t know exactly what will happen. To me, that’s pretty exciting,” Stalheim says. “When performing new music, the musicians often can have a bigger role—a bigger ownership in what’s happening.”

Present Music performs 7:30 p.m. Jan. 8 at Turner Hall Ballroom.
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