On an early pre-Christmas afternoon Queen’s Hall is apparently deserted; but slipping through the stage door at the rear I hear a gentle ripple of piano notes, which has the immediate effect of dissipating the headache and muscular tension of an hour’s drive to town. Unannounced and momentarily unseen I glide towards the Steinway grand, unwilling to break the spell which conductor, choral director and pianist Richard Tangyuk is weaving in total absorption.
In a couple of weeks Tangyuk will have a much larger audience and another highly successful and multi-talented collaborator—violinist and pan virtuoso Liam Teague. The duo will be presenting two concerts (January 5 and 6 at Naparima Bowl and Queen’s Hall) of classical pieces, highlighting their instruments of choice and giving local audiences an all-too-rare New Year’s or Feast of the Kings’ gift of classical music.
Tangyuk and Teague, who have never performed together previously, belong to a small cadre of local musicians who have found fulfilment in the relatively select field of classical music. The notion that this genre is strictly western and therefore alien or inaccessible to Caribbean audiences, is belied by a long line of regional composers and instrumentalists and the success of such annual festivals as the Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico or Barbados’ Holder’s Season.
For Tangyuk, the induction into classical music remains a mystery. No one in his family played an instrument and outside of school, his only exposure was one hour’s programming a week on the radio. While his peers may have been in a kaiso or early soca, funk or reggae groove, he admits: “My fascination with classical music was so intense I tended to overlook calypso.”
Despite his own passion, he’s both sympathetic and perspicacious about those who do not share it: “A lot of people are intimidated by classical music….some of it does require a knowledge of style and composition...we’ve been exposed to a lot of loud music and so are no longer attuned to the nuances.” It’s precisely those nuances—not just in tempo changes, but in rhythm, tone, sonorities and colour that he’s still fascinated by and wishes to share with local audiences.
Catering for local taste is a challenge: “Trinis like what they know but it’s important for people to listen to new things.” Consequently the programme is a calculated mix of the ever popular and familiar (Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Chopin, Viennese melodies) with the new. The concert will begin with the premiere performance of Grotesque, a piece for pan and piano composed by a graduate student of Teague’s at Northern Illinois University, where Teague is Head of Pan. “I’ve no idea how the public will react,” Tangyuk opines with a note of trepidation.
While the composition features complex ostinato structures, a presto tempo, and is technically extremely demanding, Tangyuk defends its choice as curtain raiser; “We thought it important to do something new and which was written specifically for pan.” There’s also the secondary but equally valid justification that “If local performers don’t try to stretch audiences” how will they extend their listening? Another consideration was the promotion of pan as a bona fide instrument and playing a piece that has not been transcribed from another instrument (piano, violin). “Not everything works on pan,” Tangyuk bravely speculates, “it has a limited range and is a percussive instrument unlike the violin or cello.” Maybe it’s a smart move to premiere Grotesque first (leaving the audience little choice but to remain in their seats for the rest of the recital) and anyway reassurancingly, the second piece is a familiar Latin composition.
The balance of the programme (four solos per performer and four duets) includes two Teague compositions (the recent A Visit to Hell and Raindrops, a teenage prodigy composition) the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; a Schubert serenade; the First Movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor; pieces by Debussy and Chopin and a couple of Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Melodies. Tangyuk regrets not being able to play “some more Romantic stuff” but argues that that the Romantic idiom doesn’t transcribe well to pan, unlike the Baroque.
Tangyuk brings a lifetime’s learning and teaching experience to the stage. Inspired as a St Mary’s student by choir director Lindyann Bodden-Rich, he studied piano privately, before going on to Mannes College of Music, a small New York conservatory for a degree in Choral Conducting and then to the world’s largest music school at Indiana University, for his doctorate. 15 years as Director of Choral Conducting at Princeton prepared him for the position of conductor at The Princeton Fest, an annual New Jersey arts festival featuring musicals and opera.
Locally, he’s long been active as a judge in the Schools’ Music Festival, which is how he originally met Teague in the early 1990s, who was then a violinist in the National Youth Orchestra. Looking back over 20 years of the schools’ festival (which he competed in as a young pianist) he notes a great improvement in instrumental playing, especially in pan.
Besides commending the pan programme in schools, he also singled out the work done by the Holistic School of Music, which covers all music genres but bemoaned the lack of choral programmes for schools in Trinidad, other than at Bishop Anstey and St Joseph’s Convent. Insistent that music education is in itself holistic ( developing self-discipline, dedication, teamwork and a sense of achievement—all invaluable life skills) he cites the example of Anna Marie Brimacombe in Tobago, who has run a training programme for teachers (from any discipline) in choral direction. The fruits of this one-woman project were apparent at this year’s schools’ festival, where Tobago choirs swept the board.
The Tangyuk/Teague recital, a tightrope organisational challenge, will donate part of its proceeds to two charities: The Guardian’s Neediest Cases Fund and the T&T Music Literacy Trust, which aids young pannists and steelbands; runs workshops and an after-school programme for children in underserved communities, as well as providing scholarships for the young and gifted. As Tangyuk says: “I just hope people will come out.” If you do, you’ll not only be extending your own musical range but directly contributing to a creative and peaceful new generation.
Although he lives in the US, Richard Tangyuk returns home from time to time to contribute to the development of the local classical scene.