Instructions to composers

Gloria Cheng. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Friday August 10

LENOX – It was such a treat to have the opportunity to hear Gloria Cheng in recital at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. It included works by Birtwistle, Rands, Knussen, Benjamin, Harbison, and Salonen. I wrote the essay for her program and thus had taken the time to assiduously study all the scores in advance. But hearing them come to life in Cheng’s performance was still revelatory. Her accounts of the pieces were technically assured, meticulously detailed, and interpretively thoughtful. Those listeners who fear the post-tonal wing of contemporary repertoire, finding its dissonance forbidding, should make a point to hear her perform. She makes these works sing; your phobia will likely be cured before intermission.

There was a score that I hadn’t seen prior to the recital: her encore. To commemorate his 80th birthday Cheng commissioned a piece from John Williams. Mindful of the weighty program that listeners had already heard, the pianist made one request: that the composer write a short piece: one that could fit onto a single page.

After she explained this stipulation to the audience, Cheng unfurled the page of staff paper that Williams had delivered to her. His Conversations was indeed written on one page: one BIG page that could fill a grand piano’s entire music desk!

The audience certainly didn’t mind, and Cheng gave a stirring rendition of a work on which the ink was barely dry.

Those who know John Williams’s music from his film scores might assume that his concert music sounds similar. It doesn’t. Indeed, it fit right in alongside the formidable offerings already hear on the program. Who says one can only compose in one style?

And who said that a “single page” had to be 8″ 1/2 X 11″?

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