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Date With a Diva

Music students share a private master class with an avant-garde virtuoso.

When Trevor Weston wanted to take students in his music composition class to a concert featuring 20th-century music, he sought the counsel of Vivian Chiu C’93, the director of cultural partnerships and artist services for Steinway & Sons, the venerable piano maker.

“Vivian said, ‘I can do better,’” recalls Weston, professor and chair of the Drew music department. “‘I can get Margaret Leng Tan.’”

At least two or three students said, ‘This course was really great, not because I want to become a great composer but because it encouraged me to explore my own voice.’ And that’s what a music composition course at a liberal arts college really is.” —Professor Trevor Weston, pictured with students inside Steinway Hall

In the world of avant-garde piano music, Tan, who enjoyed a long collaboration with the late composer John Cage, dwells along the leading edge. Outsize sobriquets like “diva” and “sorceress” arise from her outré approach: playing toy pianos, strumming the strings like a harp.

So one day last fall, Chiu and Weston and his students gathered inside Steinway Hall in midtown Manhattan for a private master class taught by Tan. She demonstrated how she produces the unusual sounds for which she is well known—reaching inside the piano to pluck strings or placing objects on (or inside) the piano.

Tan also agreed to play the works of four student composers, among them Dorian Crimmins C’19, who had never been exposed to composition before taking Weston’s class. Crimmins, who is part Chinese, wrote a piece based on a Chinese folk tale, “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.” Tan was visibly impressed.

“She liked it, which was really cool,” Crimmins says. “It was one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me.”


More from the spring 2018 issue