Glo­ria Cheng keeps Spheres spin­ning

She opens the Pi­ano Spheres sea­son with a ra­di­ant, il­lu­mi­nat­ing recital of new mu­sic.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - MARK SWED

Pi­ano Spheres be­gan its 17th sea­son Tues­day night with a recital by Glo­ria Cheng. Her typ­i­cally in­ven­tive pro­gram in­cluded the most re­cent pi­ano pieces of Pierre Boulez and Thomas Adès and three world pre­mieres, main­tain­ing the Pi­ano Spheres tra­di­tion of be­ing up to date.

The tightknit lo­cal new mu­sic com­mu­nity nearly filled the Col­burn School’s Zipper Hall. Film mu­sic lu­mi­nar­ies John Wil­liams and Dan Davis (the com­poser of the “Ma­trix” tril­ogy) at­tended. Cheng, who is such a fix­ture on the new mu­sic cir­cuit that she can be taken for granted, wasn’t this time. Her play­ing was il­lu­mi­nat­ing and burst­ing with ra­di­ant sonori­ties. The au­di­ence was rapt and en­thu­si­as­tic. It was a balmy, per­fect evening down­town. More than one per­son came up to me af­ter the con­cert, lin­ger­ing in the lobby and beam­ing, with the line “only in L.A.”

We prob­a­bly need to watch the gloat­ing. But the fact is, Pi­ano Spheres — un­like, say, food trucks or Lind­say Lo­han — is a nour­ish­ing,

last­ing L.A. in­ven­tion and one that — un­like, say, food trucks or Lo­han — would be hard to ex­port. The col­lec­tive of four pi­anists (Vicki Ray, Mark Rob­son and Su­san Svrcek are the oth­ers) was be­gun by their men­tor, Leonard Stein, who died in 2004. But torches pass. Pro­gram­ming this sea­son is ad­ven­tur­ous, se­duc­tive and in­di­vid­ual. And Cheng’s open­ing recital set, from the start, a lofty stan­dard.

That start was Boulez’s “Une Page d’Éphéméride,” which is more than a page and more than ephemera. It is a five-minute score writ­ten five years ago that the com­poser hopes to use as the germ for a much larger pi­ano piece. I hope he finds the time, Boulez hav­ing spent much of this year, his 85th, on the podium.

Boulez writes hyper-ac­tive mu­sic. Sonori­ties change con­stantly. Vi­o­lent and med­i­ta­tive ges­tures, deep res­o­nances and high­pitched bell-like fil­i­gree, con­stantly con­trast. But still­ness and flurry in Boulez are merely op­po­site sides of the same key­board coin. “Ephemera” im­plies magic, and this score, float­ing just out of nar­ra­tive reach, is an as­ton­ish­ing mu­si­cal jug­gling act.

Boulez was fol­lowed by Claude Vivier’s “Pianoforte,” a short, strange and moody early score writ­ten by the Cana­dian com­poser in 1975, eight years be­fore his murder at age 34. He too liked Boulezian bells, which he fleshed out with jazzy sonori­ties.

The rest of the pro­gram’s first half, all new or nearly new mu­sic, had the char­ac­ter of a con­tem­po­rary com­poser con­nect­ing with an ear­lier one. Adès’ three mazurkas were pre­miered last year by Emanuel Ax, and they were a trib­ute to Chopin. This was al­ready their third lo­cal per­for­mance (Ax played them in Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall and the com­poser per­formed them Mon­day night at a ben­e­fit din­ner for Jacaranda, the Santa Mon­ica new mu­sic group). Cheng’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion was the most play­ful. She un­cov­ered Adès’ mostly hid­den dance rhythms, un­rav­eled his con­tra­pun­tal in­tri­ca­cies, and bathed the lit­tle pieces in a dis­tinc­tive glim­mer.

Ger­not Wolf­gang’s “Still Wa­ters,” the first of the three new pieces, felt a lit­tle, in Cheng’s words, like “Schoen­berg meets Bill Evans.” The score is not ac­tive but in­ter­est­ing in the thick­ness of its tex­tures and its dark­ish sonori­ties.

In his pro­gram note, com­poser James Newton wrote that “Look­ing Above, the Faith of Joseph” was meant as a kind of con­ver­sa­tion among the jazz pi­anists Th­elo­nius Monk, Art Ta­tum and Ce­cil Tay­lor and Yvonne Lo­riod (Mes­si­aen’s wife and muse). A phrase be­gun in the style of one fin­ishes in the style of an­other. This then is in­her­ently jumpy mu­sic, owned by no sin­gle voice.

Daniel S. God­frey’s “Night Walk” doesn’t have spe­cific ref­er­ences, but it had Tues­day the aura of a late-Ro­man­tic Amer­i­can mu­sic slightly up­dated. Cheng here pro­duced a mel­low glow for muted sonori­ties.

De­bussy wasn’t too far away.

The sin­gle work af­ter in­ter­mis­sion was Mes­si­aen’s Eight Pre­ludes, which were writ­ten in 1929 when the com­poser was 20.

De­bussy re­ally wasn’t very far away.

De­bussy’s pre­ludes were still rel­a­tively new mu­sic, and the young Mes­si­aen aped them with his ti­tles (such as “A Re­flec­tion in the Wind”). De­bussy’s sonori­ties be­came im­pe­tus for Mes­si­aen’s sonori­ties, and so did the older com­poser’s col­ors.

But Mes­si­aen had a har­monic and melodic sweet­ness al­ready his own, as well as a pas­sion for chirp­ing birds.

I have no idea what Mes­si­aen meant when he spoke of these pre­ludes be­ing “vi­o­let, orange, pur­ple.” Color in mu­sic is sug­ges­tive. But color is also some­thing we all rec­og­nize, and Cheng had col­ors ga­lore, what­ever they were, com­ing from the keys. She has long been one of our most grat­i­fy­ing Mes­si­aen pi­anists, and here she phrased with warmth and made the pi­ano re­sound in a way that made Mes­si­aen ir­re­sistible.

Jay L. Clen­denin

IN­TENT: Glo­ria Cheng at Tues­day night’s sea­son-open­ing Pi­ano Spheres recital at Zipper Con­cert Hall. Her pro­gram in­cluded Pierre Boulez and James Newton.

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