Satisfying Satie

Margaret Leng Tan, doyenne of the toy piano, was one of the recipients of the Cultural Medallion 2015. PHOTO: NAC



Margaret Leng Tan (piano, toy piano), Daniel Jenkins (narration)

Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore/Last Friday

Descriptions of "eccentric", "fascinating" and "brilliant" are never far off when referring to the music, writing and persona of French composer Erik Satie, and yet many would have already heard his atmospheric works in films and on television without realising it.

Margaret Leng Tan, doyenne of the toy piano and music of John Cage, can often be described in a similar fashion. This homage to Satie's music and his influence on avant- garde composers who followed was conceived and first performed by Tan in New York in 2012, and this evening's performance was heartfelt, illuminating and captivating.

The first half consisted of a set of Satie works that included the obligatory Gymnopedie (No. 3), with parts performed on toy piano. It was punctuated by readings of Satie's own writings, including his rib-tickling A Day In The Life Of A Musician, by theatre veteran Daniel Jenkins.

Sports Et Divertissements (Sport And Recreation), 21 miniature poems and music published in an album with illustrations by Charles Martin, closed the first half. The work combined Tan's sensitive piano-playing and Jenkins' reading with Martin's illustrations projected in the background, and was the best possible introduction for the Satie neophyte and enthusiast alike to his quirky, wondrous world.

A sequence of works influenced by Satie followed the interval, beginning with Catalan composer Federico Mompou's Dance No. 1. Two Cage works followed, both performed to synchronised videos which included sequences of Tan performing the same pieces, and her live show with 11 other pre-recorded toy pianos. The concert ended with Satie Blues by Toby Twining, which combined video, choreography and Tan on toy piano.

The minimalist writing of Satie and other composers in the line-up meant that Tan played a tiny fraction of the notes that would be heard in a typical classical piano recital. However, fast finger work is but one element of "virtuosity" in performance.

Her exquisite timing and feel for the music, Jenkins' brilliant characterisations, the inspired programming and stunning video backdrops made this an immensely compelling performance.

Presented by the National Museum in conjunction with an exhibition of French art, this performance was Tan's first in Singapore since she received the Cultural Medallion in 2015.

The technical preparation behind it was clearly immense and the performance, world-class. It was gratifying that Tan played to a near-capacity crowd in the 247-seat venue, but given the hours of preparation, it was a pity the performancewas not run over multiple evenings.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline Satisfying Satie. Subscribe