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Monday, Jan. 10, 2011

Beautiful Breakable Toys

Present Music with Margaret Leng Tan

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Margaret Leng Tan, the world’s first toy piano virtuoso, was the star of Present Music’s concert “Toys!”She was perfectly accompanied by the Present Music string ensemble, which also performed two works alone: the more traditionally virtuosic Second Movement of a 2008 String Quartet by John Adams, and Osvaldo Golijov’s wonderful Last Round, composed for a double string quartet and a single bass to honor the great Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla. In tango orchestra style, the dueling violins and violas were played standing up, adding physical theater to the rapturous sounds.

I’ll never forget Tan, half kneeling on a child-size stool to play an honest-to-goodness toy piano with its imprecise pitches and tinny timbre while the packed Turner Hall Ballroom held its breath.Time and timelessness, East and West, beauty and silliness, and all things great and small were present.In Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, composed for Tan in 2006 by Ge Gan-ru, she played 16 toys, including two pianos, harp, glockenspiel, whistles and drums, while singing in Chinese Opera style a grief-stricken poem from A.D. 1155 by the revered Song Dynasty poet Lu You.Oh so slowly she opened a tiny electronic frog and cricket box, let us listen to the barely audible chirps, snapped it shut, then opened it for one last magical breath.

The avant-garde is also the rear guard, defending the past while proposing new paths to pleasure and understanding. I thought of vaudeville, a reference heightened by the peeling relic that is Turner Hall, and the One Man Band with his many instruments available to hand and mouth. He would have played Sousa; Tan played Cage, Glass and Satie, all sublimely. As she began a gorgeous arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” the toy piano acted up. She quickly fixed it, and we saw that it was, indeed, a breakable toy. She and we were at its mercy.