Riotous fun with toy pianos



re:Sound with Margaret Leng Tan

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall

Last Friday

After feasting on baroque, classical and romantic repertoire in its first two years, Singapore's only professional chamber ensemble, re:Sound, dived headlong into 20th-and 21st-century music with a vengeance.

This season's opener saw the participation of Cultural Medallion recipient Margaret Leng Tan, who has been hailed Queen of the Toy Piano.

It, however, opened with Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony, a 10-minute banality that delighted in gimmicky effects of rattle, bird whistle, cuckoo call, tambourine and jingles played over the strings.

That nonetheless whetted the appetite for mayhem to come, with Tan's entry to plink on her Schoenhut toy pianos for the rest of the show. She sat on a low stool, but still towered over her instruments.

Opening with solo pieces by Britain-based American composer Stephen Montague, she showed what the fuss was all about. It takes a consummate virtuoso to get around the driving tarantella rhythm of Mirabella and, with the help of tape, a gamelan-like orchestral sonority was created in Raga Capriccio, a work based on the repetition of just a few notes.

With four arrangements for toy piano and string quartet by Milos Raickovich, some avant-garde and big names were celebrated. Most familiar were the drolleries of Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 3.

Tan then played on two pianos simultaneously in Philip Glass' Modern Love Waltz, carousing to a Spanish-like rhythm.

John Cage's Dream was haunting, building up seamlessly like Barber's famous Adagio For Strings. Toby Twining's Nightmare Rag conjured a haunted house feel and, with its tribute to The Addams Family theme music, had the audience snapping their fingers on cue.

The music got denser with a combination of string, wind instruments and percussion in Erik Griswold's Gossamer Wings. Its three movements had lightness in texture with the marimba's timbre complementing that of the toy piano.

The final movement saw percussionist Michael Tan thumping it out on a toy drum-set of his own. Michael Wookey's Coney Island Sous L'Eau employed a bigger ensemble, with a heady reliving of fairground music.

The use of siren and thunder effects reminded one of Satie's surrealist ballet Parade.

The concert closed with the full orchestra in Montague's A Toy Symphony (1999), conducted by the composer himself. This was the world premiere of its 2018 version, specially scored for toy piano part alongside six guest artists deployed to the kitchen department.

Joining the fray were the British high commissioner and his wife, several orchestral general managers and community musicians, and veteran comedienne-broadcaster Koh Chieng Mun.

The three-movement symphony was premised on the nostalgia of playing with one's childhood toys in a musty attic. Highly dramatic horror movie effects ruled the Noisy Toys, Slow Afternoon opening movement, and the audience got a chance to hiss, shush and bird-whistle in the subsequent movements before the procession of Ghost March, Tin Soldiers At Dawn, which closed the work with a terrific din.

Serious work or not, it completed a smashing evening of riotous fun.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2018, with the headline 'Riotous fun with toy pianos'. Print Edition | Subscribe