Draped in silk, her fingers lit with tiny blue lights, Margaret Leng Tan — one of the most formidable pianists in modern music — marched with great stateliness to the stage at the Hill Center on Wednesday night, clanging a set of miniature cymbals before her. Stepping over a bed of plastic toys at her feet, she folded herself regally before a tiny toy piano — not easy for anyone over the age of 6 — and launched into what may be the most singular classical concert in Washington this season: serious contemporary music, composed entirely for toys.
Tan (who’s been dubbed “Queen of the Toy Piano” by the New York Times) has almost single-handedly inspired a wave of young composers to start writing for toy instruments, and Wednesday’s concert showcased a range of new music as complex as it was playful. Almost all of it was written in the past decade, and much of it, including John Kennedy’s “The Winged Energy Of Delight” (for toy cymbals, toy piano and sandpaper blocks) and Monica Pearce’s “Clangor” (for toy piano and bicycle bells), was written specifically for Tan.
There were theatrical pieces (Tan raps herself violently across the knuckles with a squeaky plastic hammer in David Wolfson’s “Twinkle, Dammit!”) and outright funny ones, such as Jed Distler’s compression of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle into a 60-second tour de force, or James Joslin’s “Für Enola,” a sort of duet for toy piano and jack-in-the-box. Some tapped directly into the nostalgia that toys evoke; Phyllis Chen’s “Carousel” and “Cobwebbed Carousel” (for toy piano and hand-cranked music box) were poignant and quietly atmospheric. Still others — particularly the colorful “Toy Symphony” by Jorge Torres Sáenz — left little doubt of either Tan’s keyboard virtuosity or her poetic imagination; few musicians have played bird whistles, mechanical crickets and a 37-key piano (all simultaneously) with such delicate insight.
Much of that might sound gimmicky, even a bit twee. But Tan treated even the most comical works with dignity and respect — no easy task when you’re wearing a plastic Brunhild helmet — and in the end, her slightly awkward stage presence only added to the beguiling charm of the evening. This was no gimmick; it felt more like an invitation to innocence, and a rather wonderful second childhood.
Brookes is a freelance writer.