By Ted AYALA
The name alone causes the casual listener to dismiss its possibilities: toy piano. In fact, for decades it was just that – a children’s toy that, at most, was sometimes employed in the “toy symphonies” often devised as household entertainments by 19th century composers.
But it took composers like John Cage in the 20th century to discover the toy piano not as merely an object of amusement, but as a catalyst for the exploration of yet undreamt sonorities.
Today composers and musicians from a wide swath of genres and styles – from avant-gardists to pop stars – embrace its brittle, fragile sound. Much of its modern rise, pianist Mark Robson feels, has much to do with the instrument’s uncanny ability to “evoke the world of childhood.”
“The instrument has an edge of whimsy and fantasy,” he explained. “There’s almost a cartoonish aspect to it.”
Robson will be showcasing some of those facets of the instrument on Friday at Pasadena’s Boston Court. The recital, part of the Piano Spheres series, will include world premieres by composers Blair Whittington, Vera Ivanova, Nick Norton, Hunter Ochs and Michael Roth. Interspersed in the program will also be works by Cage, Mozart and Bartók among others.
The instrument on which Robson will play is a Jaymar toy piano: an instrument that was given to his Piano Spheres colleague in her childhood.
Though the name implies the facile, mastering the toy piano is anything but easy as Robson explained. The pianist has been working at learning every nuance of the instrument for the past four years.
“It’s an ongoing learning curve,” he said. “Playing it is not about direct arm weight and attack like with a standard piano. It’s more about shifting the weight of the fingers. Of course, it also doesn’t sustain tone very well. The harmonics can also be a bit wonky. But you make up for all that in other ways, in its theatrical flair, for example.”
Another challenge, Robson maintained, was programming a recital of toy piano without fatiguing the listener’s ear. Spread throughout the recital will be pieces for solo piano, which he hopes would serve as “rest points” for the audience. Included in the program will be an arrangement of his own of Cage’s early “Dream” which he will play on the piano and toy piano.
“There’s something ingenuous about the toy piano,” Robson went on. “There’s something about its sound that beguiles you into accepting it at face value. Its built-in percussiveness can be a lot of fun.”
Robson’s Piano Spheres recital will take place on Friday, May 8 at Boston Court (70 N. Mentor Avenue, Pasadena) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $20 for seniors. To obtain tickets and more information, visit www.bostoncourt.com/events/240/piano-spheres-mark-robson or call the Boston Court’s box office Tuesday – Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at (626) 683-6883.