Review: ‘Pioneers of Avant-Garde Piano’ at The Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation presented an unusual recital of avant-garde music composed by Henry Cowell, John Cage and George Crumb. These three giants of experimentation remind us of Albert Barnes’s interest in classical music and his sponsoring of musicians. It was Barnes’s custom to invite guests to his home to see his modernist paintings and to hear private performances by up-and-coming players.

Margaret Leng Tan. Photo courtesy The Barnes Foundation.
Margaret Leng Tan. Photo by Yvonne Tan.

Barnes was angry about the neglect of living composers. He wrote to Leopold Stokowski, “Others play the work of the safely dead, while living art and live artists get scant recognition.” In 1917 Barnes invited Stokowski to come on a Sunday afternoon and hear the Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes. Based on what he heard that day, Stokowski hired Novaes to make her debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra that December at the age of 22. Similar recitals continued until Barnes’s death in 1951.

The major work in this concert was the Philadelphia premiere of Crumb’s Metamorphoses, Book One, based on a series of paintings, for amplified piano, toy piano, percussion and voice. It was performed by Margaret Leng Tan, who was a student of Cage and is affectionately known as “the diva of avant-garde pianism.” The Philadelphia-based Crumb is widely considered to be one of America’s most important living composers.

Margaret Leng Tan. Photo by Ken Weiss.
Margaret Leng Tan. Photo by Ken Weiss.

Cage’s composition The Perilous Night opened the program. It uses a “prepared” piano that has bolts, screws, felt and bamboo fastened to its strings to conjure tantalizing new sounds. Cage’s style is percussive and intentionally repetitious, and the prepared strings produced tapping tones with almost no reverberation. Jasper Johns painted a canvas based on Cage’s music, and Crumb recently composed a tonal interpretation of that Johns painting. That became part of Metamorphoses, which Crumb says is a descendent of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Each of the ten movements is inspired by a different painting. Other sections are based on canvases by Paul Klee, Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, James McNeill Whistler, Paul Gauguin, Salvador Dalí and Vasily Kandinsky. Their paintings appeared on a screen above Tan’s head, with video projection by Monica Duncan.

During parts of Metamorphoses, Tan reached over the keyboard and under the lid to pluck the piano’s strings, tap them with a mallet, and scrape them with a wire brush. During van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, Tan hummed, sang and crowed. She played Klee’s Black Prince with smoldering intensity, Chagall’s The Fiddler with exuberance in Russian Jewish style, and his Clowns at Night languidly in a lazy blues tempo.

Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold was dreamlike and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory was shadowy. Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider had a relentless driving rhythm. Gauguin’s Contes Barbares incorporated a Tahitian death chant and a Tahitian dance. Crumb’s composition includes rattles, chimes, drum and a metallic jewelry chain, used subtly and quietly.

Between the Cage and the Crumb, Tan played four pieces by Henry Cowell: The Tides of Manaunaun, Aeolian Harp, The Banshee, and Advertisement. These were composed between 1917 and 1959, when Cowell shocked audiences by requiring the player to walk around the piano, lean into its interior and bang the strings. He also specified the use of fists, forearms and the palms of hands upon the keys. During The Banshee, Tan added shrieks and moans as indicated in the score.

Cowell was a pioneer, Cage studied with Cowell, and Tan was a student of Cage, so this concert linked three forms of music that extended the language of piano. Metamorphoses, Book One had its world premiere earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Crumb, at the age of 88, is working on a Book Two of Metamorphoses.

The Barnes Foundation has embarked on a series of concerts to fulfill Dr. Barnes’s tradition. Internationally known soloists will give recitals, and a newly-formed Barnes Ensemble will appear four times a year with as many as 80 players for intensive two-week workshops and performances.

Running Time: Two hours, including an intermission.

Cowell, Cage, Crumb — Pioneers of Avant-Garde Piano played on November 8, 2017 at The Barnes Foundation – 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in Philadelphia, PA. Information about future musical events at the Barnes is available online.


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