Working as a Silicon Valley software designer, Vienna Teng sometimes imagined a more creative life beyond the confines of her computer cubicle.
"I didn't have any notion of performing or singing, but I had this fantasy of wanting to compose," Teng recalls. "But I dismissed it as impractical, and then I had a rather subversive piano teacher who asked me if I wanted to do anything in the world as a profession, what would I like to do most? Despite having aspirations in medicine and high-tech, I really wanted to do music. It took about six years from that conversation to make the leap."
Having studied classical piano from age 5 until she finished high school, Teng's career shift subsequently produced a series of remarkably accomplished albums culminating with her latest tour de force, the dazzling "Inland Territory."
On her most ambitious, adventurous recording to date, Teng applies her exquisite vocals and piano playing to material as varied as introspective ballads, rousing gospel/country, and even an up-tempo dance song. Infusing contemporary material with a classical sensibility, she embellishes these compositions with woodwind arrangements, string ensembles, electronic textures and a multitracked choir.
Teng has described her music as chamber folk, because she fuses her classical training with the influence of '70s folk artists like Joni Mitchell and Simon and Garfunkel.
Critics have praised her virtuosic skill, and ability to craft music that is "startling in its emotional and intellectual depth," noted the Washington Post. In fact her music is so compelling, it's a little perplexing that she's not more well known.
Vienna Teng performs at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5 in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater.
Tickets are $22 plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Among "Inland Territory's" many highlights, the lushly epic "Antebellum," resplendent with elegant piano flourishes, employs battlefield metaphors to explore the disintegration of a relationship. The equally memorable "Stray Italian Greyhound" focuses on a blossoming romance with veiled reference to politics and our new president.
"Part of it was inspired by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama," she explains. "I saw a lot of interesting things happening; a lot of people who were not accustomed to being unabashedly optimistic found themselves caught off guard, including myself. I'm a reluctant optimist. It was a lot of fun to write about someone falling in love who doesn't really want to."
Teng decided to name herself after Austria's capital city at the age of 12. "I was taking classical piano lessons at the time and realized all my favorite composers came from Vienna," she says. "I decided if I was going to write my own music, I would go by that name. It could have easily been Paris or Leipzig."
This California-born Taiwanese-American multi-instrumentalist's musical career took off in 2002, soon after she began pursuing composing and performing full time. Within six months of quitting, she was featured on NPR's "Weekend Edition" and on "The Late Show with David Letterman," while her debut CD, "Waking Hour," received glowing reviews.
Over the course of four albums, Teng has sometimes delved into profound territory. The haunting, a capella "Passage" on "Warm Strangers" describes a fatal car crash and its impact on family members.
"Some folks have told me that's their most skipped song on the record, not because they didn't like it, but it's not something that can just go by in the background," she notes. "That was inspired sitting in traffic on a rainy evening, and there had been a horrible accident. I had a desire to write about it from the view of their mother and lover and sister."
On another chilling song, the somber "Pontchartrain" on "Dreaming Through the Noise," Teng multitracks her voice over a dirge-like rhythm to honor victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"On every album I seem to need to write a song that's difficult for me," she says. "With 'Pontchartrain,' it was important to pay tribute to stories that might have got lost. A friend sent me a map of all the different wards of New Orleans and their racial makeup as well as which ones were most devastated by the flood, and it was eerie how they matched up."
Not only was Aerosmith's War Memorial Stadium concert the biggest production in Maui history, it was also one of the longest sets the legendary band has played in a while. Clocking in at more than two hours compared to roughly an hour and a half in Honolulu, they added songs like "Big Ten Inch" and the Fleetwood Mac classic "Rattlesnake Shake." And we got a Joey Kramer drum solo. That hasn't happened in years according to Joe Perry's wife, Billie, who Twittered about the event.
Amid speculation that the band might soon dissolve because of internal dissension, the band's lead guitarist pronounced on his Twitter page after the Maui show: "It feels great to have Aero rocking out again. Hopefully we will be touring near you soon. Thanks for all of the support during Aeros down time. It is great to have Steven back on stage with all of us. We missed him."
Aside from the "Maui No Ka Oi" praises from Steven Tyler, our show included a number of unique moments, from the surprise opening dancing and drumming from Halau Kulia Ika Nu'u, and Tyler strumming a ukulele and serenading with a snippet of "Little Grass Shack," to the singer grabbing a fan's cell phone and briefly chatting, and guitarist Perry sharing how he was married at Iao Valley and partially composed "Walk This Way" on one of our beaches.
Twittering before the show Perry reported: "Great feeling to be on stage and look around and see that I am on stage with all of my brothers of 35-40 years rockin' out. We all are so happy his (Steven's) shoulder is feeling better. It will be magical."
Didgeridoo player Alana Cini opened the concert with the Vince Esquire Band, and almost got to play with the big boys.
Alana had previously met Steven Tyler and his friend/composer Mark Hudson in Makawao, at the Little Tibet jewelry store. Her father, acclaimed entertainer Al Martino, had recently died, and a radio DJ was playing a tribute to him as Alana entered the store.
"I walk in and 'Daddy's Little Girl' is playing and I just started sobbing," she says. "Right at that time Mark Hudson walks in and asks if I'm OK. I explain my father, Al Martino, just died and he says, 'I have had breakfast with your father two or three times a week for the last few years.'"
Amazed by the coincidence, Alana reports Hudson bought a bunch of jewelry and eventually says, " 'I have a surprise for you' and he walks out and back in with Steven Tyler. Steven bows and gives me a bug hug and said, 'My biggest condolences, I knew your father well.'
"The next thing I know Steven picks up my CD and goes, 'Oh my God, you play the didgidoo.' And Mark Hudson looks at me and said, 'Let's have her on stage for 'Livin' On The Edge.' " (Hudson co-wrote the hit song with Tyler and Joe Perry.)
"I played a didg for them I had in the store and they said, 'You're on.' Then we went to dinner and discussed in detail how I was going to play it."
And thus after playing with Vince, Alana was looking forward to joining Aerosmith on stage, but last minute technical difficulties nixed her participation.
"It's just an amazing story, with my dad on the air and they knew my dad," she says. "It was the perfect song I could have played on."