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Pianos Big and Small with Phyllis Chen
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This project is funded by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, through the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

+ About the Performance
This program was recorded 01/22/2009 at Symphony Space.

The pianist, toy pianist, composer, and performance artist takes you on an intriguing musical journey, performing piano works by Bach and others, as well as three pieces for toy piano.




J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Partita in D, BWV 828






Menuet / Gigue


Andrián Pertout (b. 1963)

Exposiciones (2005)

for toy piano and CD


Nathan Davis (b. 1973)

The Mechanics of Escapement [World premiere of Concert Artists Guild commission]

for toy piano and clock chimes


Phyllis Chen (b. 1978)

The Tale from The Memoirist (2007)

for toy piano, music box, and frying pan


Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

On An Overgrown Path Series I

Our Evenings

A blown-away leaf

Come with us!

The Madonna of Frydek

They chattered like swallows

Words fail!

Good night!

Unutterable anguish

In Tears

The barn owl has not flown away!


Alvin Lucier (b. 1931)

Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields)

for piano, amplified teapot, tape recorder, and miniature sound system

+ About the Artists

Declared "a breathtaking delicacy" by The Herald Times, pianist Phyllis Chen is a Concert Artists Guild New Music/New Places fellow. Her artistic pursuits take her in numerous directions as a musician, composer, and performance artist. Since discovering the toy piano, Ms. Chen has become a trailblazer, performing original multi-media compositions using toy pianos, electronics, and video, as well as works by prominent 20th entury composers such as John Cage and Julia Wolfe.

Ms. Chen is the featured musician for the world premiere and ensuing six-week run of Steven Merritt's Off Broadway production Coraline, opening in May of 2009. Other performance highlights include recitals in California and Pennsylvania, the Christopher Henry Gallery and Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, and the Extensible Toy Piano Festival in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Lauded for playing a Beethoven concerto "with amazing grace, with enviable clarity, and with finger work of both strength and elasticity" (The Herald Times). Ms. Chen's traditional piano credits include honors at the International Bartok/Kabalevsky Piano and Coleman Chamber Music Competitions. Her victory at the Marjorie Barnett Competition of Chicago included a special Bach Prize for her performance of the Goldberg Variations, and as a result, Ms. Chen was invited to perform at Symphony Center's Buntrock Hall. She has also performed as part of the Dame Myra Hess Series at the Chicago Cultural Center, aired live on WFMT Public Radio.
Ms. Chen is a member of ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble). She earned her DMA in piano performance at Indiana University under the tutelage of André Watts, who describes her as "one of the most intelligent, musical, and interesting players (and people) I've ever met. She's quite fascinating and compelling." While at Indiana University, Ms. Chen hosted her own radio program, The Toad's Wart, on IU's radio station WIUX-LP. She earned her undergraduate degree at the Oberlin Conservatory and a Masters Degree from Northwestern University.

+ About the Music

The piano music we know today is a collection of works written for different keyboards invented through the years. Bach's Partita in D was originally composed for harpsichord, and Janáček's On An Overgrown Path was conceived on the harmonium, a freestanding miniature pipe organ. These pieces create a path of musical time travel through Janáček's memories. Written between the years of 1900 and 1911, the stories behind them are complex, revealing nostalgic vignettes of joyous and painful memories in his lifetime. Many have considered this work to be a musical journal of Janáček's, spanning the sorrowful years before and after the death of his beloved daughter, Olga. In the spirit of nostalgia, I have included Alvin Lucier's Nothing is Real for piano, teapot, and miniature sound system. This piece is an arrangement of The Beatles' song Strawberry Fields Forever. In this piece, Lucier's ethereal piano part transforms into a distant and miniature reminiscence that plays back inside of a teapot. As the music is playing back, the pianist is asked to open and close the teapot lid, sometimes lifting the teapot off of the piano, causing the elusive resonances to disappear entirely.

The evolution of the keyboard has inevitably contributed to the evolution of new music written at the time. In the 20th century, the modern piano developed an "offspring" instrument known as the toy piano. The toy piano is a 2- to 3-octave keyboard instrument constructed of wood, metal rods, and plastic hammers. Most people know it as an instrument for children, or rather, the instrument that Schroeder plays in the cartoon Peanuts. In 1947, John Cage composed the first solo toy piano piece ever written, the Suite for Toy Piano. With this piece alone, Cage single-handedly brought the toy piano into the concert hall as a serious instrument. Unlike the modern piano, the toy piano does not have any sustain pedals, therefore it sounds more percussive and bright. Only two feet tall, the toy piano is a miniature-sized piano that produces a bell-like sound. Depending on the exact length of the metal rods, the tuning of the toy piano is slightly different on each instrument. The pitches are relative to one another, but will seem out of tune compared to the modern piano. Even though it is generally viewed as a toy, modern composers have embraced its quirky charms and composed unique contemporary works for the instrument. Passionate about the microtonal nature of the toy piano, Australian-Chilean composer Andrián Pertout composed Exposiciones, giving the instrument a vocal quality. The writing is rhythmically intricate and improvisational, clearly influenced by Indian music and jazz. On this program, I will be premiering a new work,commisioned by Concert Artists Guild, written specifically for a 2-octave upright Schoenhut toy piano and grandfather clock chimes by New York-based composer Nathan Davis. Along with these two works, I will be performing a movement from my own three-movement multimedia piece, The Memoirist. Though the toy piano is a relatively new instrument to the concert stage, it has quickly developed its own idiomatic repertoire. We can only be curious to see what will come next.
-Phyllis Chen

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