Vienna Teng, the supremely talented singer, piano player and songwriter who will be appearing at the Wheeler Opera House tonight, may be taking the stage as part of the Wheeler’s “On the Rise” series, but that doesn’t really do justice to her as an artist or a person. With five studio albums and one live album dating to 2001, and having most recently composed the music for the off-Broadway hit “The Fourth Messenger,” Teng is very solidly in the middle of an enviable career, but even that is just a portion of what she does.
Born Cynthia Yih Shih in Saratoga, Calif., to parents who emigrated from Taiwan, Teng started playing piano at age 5; earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Stanford University; worked as a software engineer as a way of “waiting tables while getting my music career going;” was a full-time recording and touring musician for seven or eight years; went back to school to earn a dual master’s degree in business and environmental science from the University of Michigan; and now works full time for a sustainability nonprofit in Boulder, Colo., while embarking on “weekend warrior” musical tours.
When it was suggested that such evidence might peg her as an overachiever, Teng, whose stage name is an amalgam of Austria’s musical Mecca and an “Asian name that sounded cool,” laughed, having obviously faced that charge before.
“The way I like to put it is: I’m not so much an overachiever as I have long-term ADD,” she joked.
In short, Teng does a lot of things. But there are two things, surprisingly, that she doesn’t do and has never done. Despite having two Chinese parents, Teng can only speak a little bit of Mandarin, and despite being a world-class musician living in Boulder since 2015 with a partner who works for the Basalt-based Rocky Mountain Institute, Teng has never been to Aspen.
“It’s been looming large in my imagination because so many of my fellow music students and musicians I’ve toured with have talked about it as this magical place,” she said.
Teng will break her Aspen drought tonight when she brings her own brand of genre-defying music to the Wheeler stage. Using her immense piano and vocal talents and a looper to create layered musical concoctions that owe as much to Simon and Garfunkel and Billy Joel as they do Beethoven and Brahms, Teng can’t be pigeonholed, and she likes it that way.
“I take it as a badge of honor that I’m not easily categorizable,” she said, “but it does mean that describing what I do is not so straightforward. The catch phrase I’ve come up with is ‘chamber folk.’ It hints at the idea that I grew up with a classical background, and I still love playing classical piano, so that’s where my roots are and where my sensibilities are anchored, but being adventurous from there.”
Though she’ll be appearing in Aspen as a one-woman act, Teng plans to have her partner, Jacob, join her on stage to sing a couple of songs, and she promised some audience interaction.
“I will probably be recruiting people into singing along to things or even coming up on stage if they feel so brave,” said Teng. “I try to make it as much of a participatory thing as possible.”
Those planning to attend the concert who want to brush up on Teng’s songs and get their vocal chords ready can find her albums online, but there’s one tune that they might have a little trouble figuring out the lyrics to. It’s a folk song called “Green Island Serenade,” and it’s on Teng’s 2004 album “Warm Strangers.” It’s an adaptation of a song written in 1954 about Taiwan that was popular there in the early ’60s.
With interpretation help from her mother, Teng, whose “second-grade level” Mandarin was ill equipped for the challenge, learned the words and sings the entire thing in her parents’ native tongue.
“They used to sing it to me as a lullaby, and at some point I thought it would be interesting to cover it in concert,” said Teng. “I think it meant a lot to them that I was singing the song that they had introduced me to.”
She couldn’t speak Mandarin very well with her mother and father, but she went out and recorded one of their favorite Mandarin-language songs anyway. That’s so typical.
What else would you expect from an overachi… person with long-term ADD, anyway?