Classical pianist Margaret Leng Tan downsizes her ambitions -- with big results

Margaret Leng Tan hits the ground running as she answers her phone in her Brooklyn home, and within moments she's on a verbal roll that, over the course of an extended conversation, stops only occasionally, and even then it's because she's gathering her thoughts for another round, not because she's run out of things to say. She talks about the evolving abilities of pianists by comparing them to Olympic sprinters; about "pushing the human body and human intellect to higher levels of achievement"; about the concert piano's being "full of its own self- importance"; about the importance her craft owes to the work of Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and John Cage.

She seems to work out her thoughts a nanosecond before they leave her mouth, and she makes gymnastic leaps from one idea to the next and then back again.

"We shouldn't even call it a concert," she explains of her upcoming, er, performance, "because it's not really a concert. It's more a performance -- it's theater, it's everything. I don't even call my events concerts anymore. My job is to entertain. My job is to educate, enlighten and persuade. Entertain, I can always do. Enlighten, or educate, I can always do -- and persuade, if people allow themselves to be persuaded."

Margaret Leng Tan
Michael Dames
Margaret Leng Tan

Persuade people of what?

"Persuade people to be open to new music. And the toy piano is the best advocate I can think of to do that. It's an extremely persuasive voice (laughs). Leave me out of it."

Margaret Leng Tan plays the toy piano, a cute little piano that she looms over and abuses. As she plays it, she looks like (she hears this all the time, because it's one of the only points of reference for your average Joe) Schroeder from Peanuts. But where Schroeder's itsy-bitsy instrument produced an adult piano tone, Leng Tan's goes cling-clang. And the fact that it goes cling-clang makes the notion that she can turn the sound into beauty all the more striking.

A classically trained concert pianist with a doctorate from Juilliard ("My Good Housekeeping seal of approval," she calls it), Leng Tan will perform "Ode to Schroeder: The Art of the Toy Piano" at Washington University's Edison Theater on Friday, Dec. 3.

It all seems oxymoronic: classical pianist scrunching to play a tiny toy, performing works by Satie, Beethoven, the Beatles, Philip Glass and a handful of contemporary composers (including the remarkable accordionist Guy Klucevsek, who floored a small audience at Washington University a few years ago) on an instrument designed to be banged on by a 5-year-old. Leng Tan called her most recent CD The Art of the Toy Piano. "I like the title," she says. "It took a lot of doing to come up with a title that seems so self-evident in the end, but "the art of the toy piano' is an oxymoron, isn't it, because a toy is a toy, and to turn a toy and make it into art -- it's also a parody, a play on the Bach magnum opus called the "Art of the Fugue.' But it's become an art. It's extraordinary because it takes just as much control to perform well on the toy piano as it does to perform on the big piano, and I get just as nervous performing on the toy piano -- if not more so.

On The Art of the Toy Piano, Leng Tan harnesses a plethora of toy instruments -- accordion, whistles, cap guns -- as sound organizers. For those whose notion of a piano recital consists of stuffed shirts staring at a stuffed shirt performing a stuffy classical repertoire, politely clapping between pieces, her performances are something else entirely, and have their basis in, among other things, the work of composer John Cage, whose "Suite for Toy Piano," says Leng Tan, was an obvious inspiration. "I didn't invent this whole thing of using very mundane, commonplace objects. It's something that comes out of the Picasso found-object tradition of making sculptures out of everyday, commonplace objects like the handles of a bicycle, and so on and so forth. And John Cage's prepared piano, which is using stuff from the basement. So this basically comes out of that tradition."

Listening to Leng Tan speak of her performances and her approach, it's jarring to hear her juxtapose the playfulness inherent in creating music on a toy with the seriousness and extreme amount of work and thought she's funneled into her craft. "It's very demanding," she says, "because it is such a limited instrument in terms of its mechanisms, its range. You know what Marcel Duchamp said: "Pure tools require better skills.' That's extremely applicable, isn't it? It's very relevant to the toy piano. It's a toy. It's not an art instrument, so it's tantamount to being a pure tool. I've had to hone my skills even more to be able to play it well, and as a result I'm a far better adult pianist than I ever used to be, because of the amount of fingertip control it takes to play the toy piano well in a reliable, refined manner.

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