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."

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.

"You know how a piano has hundreds of moving parts? A toy piano is absolutely Neanderthal. All it consists of is a little plastic hammer that's attached to a piano key, and the piano key activates the plastic hammer to hit a metal rod. It's really nothing but a repackaged xylophone pretending to be a piano. But within this simple mechanism, it's extraordinary what you can do if you work at it. And then I began to wonder, why does a piano have to have hundreds of moving parts when I can achieve basically the same result in control with something that has basically three parts? It either says something about my incredible fingertip control, or the piano's been too full of its own self-importance, or it's developed over the years in a way that -- is it really necessary to have all those moving parts?"

The toy piano, though, also has a sound that can be much more grating than an adult piano's. The same cling-clang that Leng Tan harnesses can get on your nerves in large doses. Its limited range results in music that seldom fades into the background, and the fact that the instrument was created with the destructive enthusiasm of a child in mind, not a concert performer, dictates that durability is perhaps a bigger concern for the manufacturer (the Schoenhut Toy Piano Co. builds "the Steinway of the toy piano,' she says) than dynamic subtlety. But all these obstacles seem to have pushed Leng Tan further toward a defiant, devout allegiance to the instrument. "I'm thumbing my nose at the establishment," she says bluntly. "I think that's the bottom line, if I were to analyze -- on some level that's what I'm doing. And the fact that I've made transcriptions of certain classical warhorses that work just as beautifully on the toy piano -- not better -- makes me feel a real sense of one-upmanship -- one-upwomanship. And actually, I'll even go so far as to say that certain pieces sound better on the toy piano than they do in their original version on the adult piano."

The only time Margaret Leng Tan loses her momentum during the conversation is when she's asked what exactly she does when performing. "I would really call what I do not a recital, but ... umm ... it's like performance ... art ... it's musical theater. It's performance art ... it's not musical theater in the song-and-dance sense ... but it's music and theater ... there must be a word for it ... I don't know how to define the category. It's extremely theatrical. It's extremely colorful, and visual. It's all choreographed. I have to move between the toy instruments, my little percussion battery of toy percussion instruments, back to the toy piano, playing the melodica. I had a background in dance when I was young. I wanted to be a dancer so badly. All this comes into play now, because I get this opportunity to -- before I even got into the toy piano, when I was playing the adult piano because I was playing on the strings of the piano a great deal -- that's basically my style, working on the inside of the piano. It's highly choreographed because you have to coordinate between playing inside the piano on the strings and on the keyboard, and this moving back and forth between the strings and the keyboard takes a tremendous amount of physical coordination. There's no time to fumble for anything. So it becomes choreography, a pianistic form of choreography, and this carries over to the way I move between the toy instruments."

Reviews of her shows have been universally heralded, so much so that as part of the Smithsonian Institution's yearlong celebration of the 300th anniversary of the invention of the piano, Leng Tan has been invited to perform; in anticipation of that performance, Schoenhut has built a new, fancy toy piano for her, one that she will debut during this week's performance at the Edison. It should be a blast.

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