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Last Night in L.A.: Gloria Cheng and friends

Gloria Cheng opened the season of serious music-listening in her position as opener of the Piano Spheres series of concerts.  The program was oriented the program to two-musicians works, and there was a gracious lead-in to the guest appearance to be given by Thomas Ades in December, with performances of two of his early works.

Cheng began the concert with Ades’s Opus 7, “Still Sorrowing” (1992-1993), written at age 21.  This is a more restrained work than many of his, with the prepared piano dampening the middle range of the piano, creating a hollowness to support its feeling of loss.  The middle work of the second half of the concert was Ades’s Opus 8, “Life Story” (1993) in its version for soprano and piano; Angela Blue was our excellent singer last night.  The work is a setting of the Tennessee Williams poem (1956) of two strangers having had their first one-night stand; I wondered how the poem escaped the attention of composers before Ades.  Ades gives the soprano (with one minor exception the words work fine for a woman singing about a man) a yawning, boozy, blues-y melody, up to the sting in the tail of the last line.  Amazon has a great CD, at bargain price, with Ades at the piano; the CD includes seven of his early works, and clips are available.

Completing the first half of the concert were two major works for piano duet.  Cheng was joined by Robert Winter — UCLA professor, Philharmonic lecturer, interactive CD developer — for Beethoven’s four-hand version of the “Grosse Fuge”.  The two made things easy by using two pianos, which avoided developing the choreography for whose arm would be where, but I didn’t find the performance especially persuasive. 

She was then joined by Neal Stulberg — currently director of orchestral studies at UCLA and a former recipient of the Seaver/NEA Conductors Award — for a performance of “Variations on a Theme by Beethoven” by Camille Saint-Saens.  We seemed to be in a salon in Paris while this was being performed. To replace a premiere which was withdrawn because the work wasn’t ready, Cheng substituted a work written for her, two movements, rather.  Two years ago, she gave the premiere of “Seven Memorials” (2004) by Stephen Andrew Taylor, now at the University of Illinois.  This is an excellent work; the NY Times music critic called it “sparklingly tactile” in reviewing Cheng’s performance of four of the movements at Tanglewood in August.  Last night Cheng played the fifth and sixth movements; excerpts of the music are available here, from Cheng’s performance of 2004.

For the rousing conclusion, Cheng was joined on the second piano by Grant Gershon, now in his sixth year as Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.  The two gave us a work written for them, which they premiered at Getty Center, “Hallelujah Junction” (1998) by John Adams.  I am an unabashed fan of this work.  It belongs in your music collections.

A good concert!  (And the attendance was about the largest I’ve ever seen there.)

Comments

Comment from Rodney Lister
Time: September 20, 2006, 2:26 pm

I can only wish that Life Story had escaped Ades attention as well. The setting is the most hideous misunderstanding (possibly) or misrepresentation (certainly) of the poems on just about every count.

Comment from Evan Johnson
Time: September 20, 2006, 3:16 pm

“Still Sorrowing” and another very early piano piece, “Traced Overhead,” are in my opinion still the best things Ades has ever done.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: September 20, 2006, 4:14 pm

Tennessee Williams texts have been very difficult to get permission to use. Maybe that’s changing.

Comment from Jerry Zinser
Time: September 21, 2006, 2:36 pm

I wondered what I might have missed in hearing “Life Story”, so I went back to the poem and read it, trying to be exposed to it for the first time. The only possible misrepresentation by Ades I can find is having the poem sung by a female, which I guess is a misrepresentation of sorts. I find an instance, occurring twice, of a different interpretation. The companion(s) of the narrator have asked for his [her] life story. After finally being given an edited version “… they say, Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, each time a little more faintly …” The narrator doesn’t finish the “entralling life story”. The companion(s) then tell “you their life story, exactly as they’d intended to do all along …” and the narrator repeats the sequence of “oh”. In reading the poem, I think the “ohs” are sounds of indifference and disinterest. Ades, however, has the “ohs” start with sounds of sexual engagement. I don’t find his differing interpretation at all damaging to the larger sense of the poem, however. The lack of deeper interest in the partner for the night comes across quite clearly, leading to “that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms.” So sorry, Rodney, I don’t understand the basis for your vehement dislike.

Comment from Rodney Lister
Time: September 21, 2006, 8:15 pm

Well, there’s no accounting for tastes, of course. But for me, the poem is funny and a little manic, not static and solemnly portentious (also pretentious), as Ades’s setting seems to me to be . I can’t see any reason for the Billie Holiday associations, such as they are, which seem to me to be forced and false, and I think the word setting’s lousy. (I’d hate the same treatment if it were given to Frank O’Hara). Aside from that I guess it’s great. I’ll admit, everything I’ve said is extremely subjective, and I can’t cite any absolutes which put me in an unassailable position to condemn it, much as I would like that. It just seems to me to be wrong, wrong, wrong.