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By Robert Schulslaper

Gloria Cheng Imaginatively Translates Lutoslawski, Stucky, and Salonen

In the world of contemporary music, Gloria Cheng is an admired performer, nay oracle, who receives and then transmits the musical thoughts of significant numbers of composers to their devotees. As an intensely sympathetic, curious, and collaborative muse to the modern she has inspired works by John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Terry Riley, and Esa-Pekka Salonen among many others, and premiered dozens of compositions for her instrument. Possessed of apparently limitless technical facility, she impresses with far more than digital dexterity, displaying musical sensitivities that result in absorbing aural experiences. I was privileged to be in attendance when she recorded some of her program for "Gloria Cheng: Piano Music By Salonen, Stucky, and Lutoslawski," and could only wish that listeners have a similar opportunity to hear her live, as the disc, sonically excellent though it is, cannot compete with the colorful sound waves conjured by such polished pianism. Considering the thought and preparation behind this release, it should come as no surprise that Gloria Cheng is as stimulating a conversationalist as she is a performer.

The CD presents world-premiere recordings of Lutoslawski's Piano Sonata (1934), Salonen's Three Preludes (2005), and Stucky's Album Leaves (2002) and Three Little Variations for David (2001). I was curious to learn how Cheng's friendship with the composers paved the way for this attractive program. "I've worked with Esa-Pekka a great deal. Backstage after a concert in the spring of 1999, he mentioned, 'I'm thinking of writing a little piano piece.' That little piano piece ended up becoming the 17-minute, two-movement monster entitled Dichotomie (1999-2000). As he likes to describe it, the DNA of the material he was working with had many possibilities. So it grew one way for the first movement and went a very different direction for the second movement."

The Lutoslawski inhabits a very different sound world from the Salonen and Stucky pieces, and yet sits well in their company. "Lutoslawski is the connecting fiber between Esa-Pekka and Steve, both of whom regard Lutoslawski as one of their musical forefathers, making themselves musical brothers. Lutoslawski had been to Los Angeles a number of times after Esa-Pekka took over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I actually was part of the performance of Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 3 during Esa-Pekka's first guest engagement with the L.A. Phil in the 1980s, and I had the opportunity to coach with Lutoslawski in Los Angeles on some of his chamber music. So we all know Lutoslawski. He connects Esa-Pekka and Steve in the Frenchness of the music, the elegance, and the clarity. Steve was especially close to Lutoslawski, and knows his music inside and out. There's an undeniable influence there."

In a prior conversation, Cheng had explained that she chose the Lutoslawski Sonata at Steven Stucky's suggestion. How did that come about? "I knew I wanted to record Esa-Pekka's Dichotomie because he wrote it for me, his Preludes because they were not recorded yet and I had recently done the U.S. premieres, and Yta II because I had played it for years. I've played so much of Steve's music and am happy to be able to consider us all to be friends. But the two of them didn't have enough solo piano music to complete a full-length CD. I thought that Lutoslawski would be the right composer to link the two, and consulted Steve about any solo works of Lutoslawski that hadn't been recorded. He proposed the Lutoslawski Piano Sonata. I had no awareness of this work, and neither did the rest of the world, for that matter. Although it was written in the 1930s, it was only published in 2004." As a more or less unknown piece, it had escaped the textual scrutiny routinely accorded manuscripts by other famous composers. Did this create problems in learning it? "Immediately upon starting to learn the piece, certain notes sounded wrong to me, and here and there the score seemed to be missing some obvious accidentals. I couldn't even decide which notes to practice at times. The deadline was tight because Telarc green-lighted this project only in late October, giving me just three months spanning the holidays to learn this gigantic piece. Complicating matters was the fact that the score is devoid of phrase markings, sparse on dynamics, pedaling, and articulation. It took all I had to work out an 'edition' of this beautiful score that was so frustratingly problematic, lacking in performance indications, and full of wrong notes. Steve informed me that the piece had been intended only for Lutoslawski himself to perform, and to help me in determining the source of the suspected errors, supplied me with a copy of Lutoslawski's original 1934 manuscript, copied by his wife Danuta. Steve also put me in touch with Charles Bodman Rae of the University of Adelaide in South Australia. Although Steve is an expert on Lutoslawski's music, Charles Bodman Rae has studied the Sonata deeply and knows every note. Between Christmas and New Year's, Charles discussed each of my questions with great insight and sympathy for the difficulties of learning a piece from a score that is in such need of a knowledgeable editor." I suggested that the world might now be ready for an authoritative Gloria Cheng edition. "Or a Charles Bodman Rae edition. He was very helpful."

I wondered if Cheng cared to expand on her impressions of the Sonata. "It's so ultra-romantic in its conception: clearly the work of a young man, especially that first movement, which is a sonata form, but a rather ambitious one. It was a challenge to pace it out so as not to spill the beans too early and save something for the end." One of the difficulties underlying a successful performance is that it has to balance analysis with spontaneity. And of course, reflective artists are always rethinking their initial conceptions. "When I was listening to the takes a week after recording, there were already so many things that I would have wanted to play differently. My ideas evolve, but I've gone and recorded it, and now wish I could record it again."

After exploring the Lutoslawski a bit, we moved on to Steven Stucky's music. "I adore every note that Steve ever wrote. Every note has poignancy and delicacy and elegance to it. Wonderful." Stucky's pieces are very communicative and flow with a natural and accessible expressivity. It's undoubtedly contemporary, but not grim, spiky, or alienating: it's never a chore to listen to. "Though Steve's music sells itself, contemporary music can be a tough sell sometimes. I try to grasp and speak the composer's language with native fluency, so that the listener can make sense of it."

She plays music by three composers on the CD. What about Salonen? "The Salonen pieces show many different sides of Esa-Pekka. The earliest work, Yta II (1985), takes its title from the Swedish word for surface. He's written a series of three Ytas for different instruments, written mostly in the 1980s for friends while he was still based in Finland. He writes in his notes about how surfaces, for a Finn, are often snow-covered and can appear either blurry as in a blizzard, or clean and sparkling as in ice. That imagery appears in the music. I also find a great deal of humor in Yta II, and can't help but imagine a high-strung little creature that goes through a transformation into something rich and beautiful by the end of the piece. Dichotomie, the major piece by Salonen on this disc, was composed in 1999-2000. The first movement, 'Mecanisme,' is just a romp, and I've confided to Esa-Pekka that I find this movement to be all about misbehaving (laughter). It's like a kid who insists on jumping on the bed and making all sorts of trouble, but every so often has to come back and behave, and does so with passages of great eloquence. The second movement of Dichotomie, entitled 'Organisme,' was conceived with the metaphor of a young willow in mind, a tree that bends in the wind. The sensibility of that movement is very French. With regard to the Three Preludes (2005), the last of the three, 'Invenzione a due voci,' is the hardest piece I've ever laid eyes on, with two independent lines that are parallel, and yet not, unrelenting, gnarly, and requiring a sound that is completely effortless and relaxed." It's interesting that neither Salonen nor Stucky are pianists, and yet they've written such technically demanding piano music. "Many of Esa-Pekka's pianist friends, including Emmanuel Ax and Paul Crossley, for whom 'Invenzione a due voci' was written, have reacted with great shock upon seeing this particular prelude. For a two-minute piece, it's a huge challenge for the pianist." Reflecting on her superb performance, I commented that however daunting its appearance, it's obviously playable. "But almost impossible. Of course, some 14-year-old will come along and just knock this stuff off."

I assumed that Cheng consults with composers whenever possible as part of the process of preparing her performances of contemporary music. "In the case of Dichotomie, since Esa-Pekka wrote it for me, we did work on it together a bit. Between the L.A. world premiere in early December of 2000 and the New York premiere a week later, he added whole bunches of notes. It was great to toss the ideas back and forth on what to do with the piece. We worked together on the Three Preludes, as well. The Preludes have not yet been published, and like the Lutoslawski Sonata, didn't arrive in my hands with much in the way of dynamics, phrasing, or articulation. The week before the recording date I e-mailed Esa-Pekka to ask 'Are you going to get me some dynamics?' (Laughter.) Though I had played all of the preludes without his raising an issue, I nonetheless thought it would be a good idea to get some specifics from him if they existed. (More laughter.) Anyway, I ended up inventing some dynamics." Many composers are more flexible about interpretation than people imagine. Has that been her experience? "Well, in this case, Esa-Pekka was. When I played Steve's pieces for Steve, he only objected to one liberty that I took and just said 'Mmmmm, maybe not.' But therein lies the fun and satisfaction of working with a composer who's right there."

Spending so much time with composers, is she ever tempted to write music, or to improvise? Given the fluency and unerring musicality of her interpretations, I was convinced that her talent would not be limited to performance. "No. People say that, they assume that I compose, but I have no talent for inventing music. My imagination kicks in only after I'm given some pre-existing music, though I did compose and improvise when I was little." Despite her disavowals, I persisted in my conviction that she's capable of more than she suspects. "No, no gift. I've tried, but there is the self-critical thing. Friends have said 'Oh, I could teach you to improvise in one afternoon.' I don't really think it works that way." Not knowing when to quit, I added that I thought it would suit her. "On paper, in theory, I think it would too. (Laughter.) Maybe one day I will.

Cheng started to play at age four. Her mother was her first teacher, but she decided to have Gloria's training supervised by others. I asked her about her musical sympathies: had she always been interested in classical music, or did other genres attract her? "I've been drawn to all kinds of music. This though is what I do, and I haven't really diverged. One of the reasons I enjoy contemporary music so much is that it presents languages that are completely unknown in advance of the encounter. The challenge of sifting through the raw data and eventually assimilating both the language and the meaning really appeals to my intellect as well as my soul. It's completely satisfying."

Speaking of challenges, everything sounded metrically straightforward, but appearances can be deceptive, even in music. Hearing is one thing, unraveling the rhythmic complexities of the score, another. Did any of these pieces pose such problems? "Yta II has no bar lines, though it is metrical with regard to note values and rests. I try to find phrases, to find what hangs together and what doesn't, what belongs where in terms of inflection, or if indeed there is a rhetoric per se." I asked why she thought a composer would prefer writing that way. "Because it's free, unleashed (laughing), and completely unhinged. It does make for a different type of challenge to shape a piece that is conceived this way."

Cheng's previous CDs reveal her affinity for a wide range of music. I haven't heard her Olivier Messiaen (on Koch), but can recommend "Piano Music of John Adams and Terry Riley" and "Piano Dance: A 20th Century Portrait" (both on Telarc). Is she planning another, and what's her secret for divining the essence of such stylistically diverse compositions? "Well, this one took over my life for a couple of months. I enjoy sharing the allure of new and unfamiliar musical languages. And it's so fun for me to play a piece with the composer standing right next to me. And to exchange ideas and get inside that person's mind and soul, and to have made sense of it: I feel I gain a rare and privileged insight into the human being when I play his or her music." I guessed that audiences feel Cheng's involvement and respond positively to her performances. "Yeah! Because they're hearing music that is unfamiliar but ingenious, and though they may never have thought of it themselves, it makes perfect sense on its own terms."

As our conversation drew to a close, Cheng broached a non-musical topic that was nonetheless illuminating for the light it shed on her curiosity, personality, and intellect. "One of the things I'm doing now is learning Greek." I knew that she was slated to perform some Xenakis shortly: was there a connection? "No, but Xenakis has a lot more resonance for me now that I've visited Greece and paid attention to the sounds that inspired him. Learning Greek has really struck a chord with me, because I spend my musical life learning new languages constantly. The process of learning Greek feels familiar, because it's the same process I go through while climbing inside a composer's world. Each composer's musical expression is utterly unique, and it's the performer's responsibility to learn the language. And now, it's starting to dawn on me that I'm wired for having fun with new languages." Learning of her love of language and knowing of her Chinese heritage, I asked if she speaks Chinese. "I've learned it as a foreigner in college, although the sounds have always been in my head. I think my zest for cracking the code of languages may actually originate in my childhood, having heard my parents speak Chinese in the house. They were of the generation that chose not to raise their children bilingually, so I picked up a bit, but not enough to speak it fluently. I gleaned the general meaning and emotional content in an expression or gesture, but not the specifics. Hearing my parents speak Chinese to each other and straining to make as much sense of it as I could while growing up prepared me for doing essentially the same thing in adulthood with these 'foreign' musical languages." I asked if she agreed with the idea that a performer has to decipher the score's many levels--emotional, intellectual, and cultural, in addition to reading the notes "Well, very much. It's all about finding the meaning in the expression and determining as closely as possible what the gestures are and what they're about."

Having heard Gloria Cheng play the piano, there can be no doubt that she's adept at discerning and clarifying the complex array of gestures we know as music and beautifully successful at translating them for the pleasure and edification of her listeners.