Performing at downtown Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse just before New Year’s eve, Vienna Teng’s two day run was a rare treat for many.
The Sunday evening (Dec. 30) show took shape slowly, taking on the character of friends settling down for a good dinner with the enjoyment of some fine wine. Vienna Teng opened with a surprise cover of the intimately familiar waltz “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (made famous by Elvis Presley) and set the stage for an evening in which her fearlessv intonation and charm enfolded the audience.
Teng’s music is lyrical and personal, or what she describes as “listening music, concert music,” best enjoyed with a quiet audience and a dark hall. Still the darkness leaves room for abundant delight in a musician who is both wonderful in her playing and comfortable as a performer. Sprinkling original songs such as “My Medea” and “Stray Italian Greyhound” with anecdotes about their creation, she added new perspective to familiar pieces and offered the audience a sense of intimacy and warmth.
The piano served as Teng’s main accompaniment, and her playing proved to be virtuosic. Along with familiar pieces such as “1ba/1br” from her fourth album, Teng was also happy to share some new songs, toying fondly with a pedal looper and harmonizer to create body for songs written with more complex instrumentation. “Hymn of the Axiom,” a new song performed using a harmonizer which echoed her light, floating vocals, proved surprisingly enjoyable. Teng was also happy to showcase her budding skill on the acoustic guitar in a work in progress, a serenade to New York City.
Teng refers to the evolution of her music as a sort of work in progress, and claims influences such as Tori Amos, Simon & Garfunkel, early Paul Simon and The Eagles in her first two albums (from 2002 and 2004). In later albums she began to write for instrumentation beyond the piano, the centerpiece that had previously grounded her music. Exploring variations in cello, violin and percussion allowed her to develop a more complex sound, perhaps with less purity than the simple combination of piano and voice, but with added layers of density and richness.
Arguably, Teng’s music has never been provocative or very mainstream. It is, however, very easy to enjoy. There is a sense of solidity with the pieces that she produces and it is this precise comfort with herself and her music that has earned Teng a dedicated following. “I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve never had tremendous success. I’ve never suddenly become particularly famous, but I do have a following that is very supportive of me as an artist and even as a person,” says Teng of her fans.
The strength of this community was in abundant evidence at Sunday’s show, which was sold out, despite Teng’s current departure from a full-time musical career to pursue a dual M.B.A. and master of science degree at the Erb Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. This speaks to the loyalty of her audience and the value of her music.
Teng already boasts a Bachelor’s in computer science from Stanford University, but gave up a stint at Cisco to pursue music full-time. She is, in her own words, “constantly exploring her interests,” not quite happy to settle into something with comfortable boundaries. That is perhaps why she is also co-writing a soon-to-open musical, “The Fourth Messenger,” which tells the story of a modern day Buddha.
Teng’s musical performance reflects her virtuosity as an artist, who is not simply devoted to her craft but is also a human being, deeply invested and interested in the world around her. As a performer, she lets her irreverent sense of humor shine, capturing both the hearts and imagination of her audience.
Contact Kelly Fang at [email protected].