Posts Tagged “Gloria Cheng”

bc40Friday, February 7, 2014 Piano Spheres presented The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II, performed by Gloria Cheng at Boston Court in Pasadena. The concert included an intriguing mixture of early French and Italian Baroque works along with late 20th century pieces. The Marjorie Branson performance space at Boston Court held an enthusiastic crowd and was the perfect venue for an intimate evening of harpsichord music.

Along with Ms. Cheng, the other star of the show was the double-manual harpsichord constructed by Gloria’s husband Lefteris Padavos. The instrument took shape in their garage during 2012 and is based on a model created by the 18th century French master harpsichord builder Pascal Taskin (1723 – 1793). The tuning was, according to Ms. Cheng something of a compromise given the diversity of the program – the early Baroque and our modern equal temperament being distinctly different. The Vallotti tuning was adopted for this performance and the result was a warm, full sound that did not detract from any of the pieces played. The light amplification and good acoustics of the space also contributed, so that even the more subtle textures and passages with elaborate ornamentation were clearly heard.

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The concert opened with Prélude non-mésuré (c. 1650) by Louis Couperin. This was a quiet, flowing piece with a wistful, nostalgic feeling. The tuning and acoustics complimented the music perfectly. Other early pieces by Frescobaldi and Rossi followed, and these had a more familiar harpsichord sound, with cascades of successively more complex phrases pouring out from the keyboard.  Ms. Cheng explained that the notation of this period is very general, leaving much to the performer in the moment. The playing here was precise and unhurried, even when the passages were in a fast tempo and highly ornamented.

Trio Sonata (1994) by John Harbison followed, consisting of four short movements, all titled Fast. Beginning with a blizzard of notes and variously quiet, syncopated, halting or playful, this piece provided an interesting comparison to the music of the first part of the concert in that, when played on the harpsichord, it did not seem so far removed from the 17th century. Carolyn Yarnell’s Prelude and Fugue (1984) followed and this seemed brighter and more optimistic when compared to the formal Baroque pieces while equaling them in elaborate phrasing. There was, to my ear, at least, a sense of continuity between the centuries that was underscored by hearing these pieces played successively on the harpsichord.

More Baroque music followed, including La Marche des Scythes (1746) by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. This piece was very formal – almost pompous – and extremely dense at times. It was written as a musical description of barbarian cavalry and the tempo was often fast and furious as befits the subject matter. The playing was often difficult and taxing – the effort being appreciatively received by the audience at the finish. Les Baricades mysterieuses (1717) by Francois Couperin followed, and provided an excellent contrast to La Marche. Soft and lush, with expressive harmony, Les Baricades mysterieuses has a simple and endearing quality that approaches an almost romantic sensibility.

Three late 20th century works closed the concert. The first of these was Continuum (1968) by György Ligeti. This piece is built on repeated arpeggio phrases, with single notes often floating above, a form that prefigures the later minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass. The effect as heard on the harpsichord is now lovely, now distressing, and now rising in tension. The playing soon becomes fast and intense and the harpsichord keys in the higher registers could be heard clicking under the strain. The tension and pitches ratchet higher and higher – the notes now pouring out – until the sudden ending, greeted by cheers and applause from the audience. This was followed by the more introspective Rain Dreaming (1986) by Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose work is informed by a love of nature and space. Rain Dreaming is quiet, spare, and filled with beautiful harmonies. It is at times solemn, lonely and seems to alternate between shadow and light. A feeling of uncertainty arises in this music that never quite leaves the piece, but it ends on a lovely warm chord at the finish.

The final work on the program was Phrygian Tucket (1994), a piece by Stephen Montague for amplified harpsichord and tape. A tucket is an Elizabethan musical phrase that means a flourish of trumpets and drums. The addition of the tape provided a series of deep chords in the lower registers that act to form a solid foundation for the melody in the harpsichord. The result is a strong, muscular sound as would be expected from a tucket. The bass tones coming from the tape seems to fill in between the more strident tones of the harpsichord and this adds a luminosity to the upper notes that is quite effective. As the piece progressed, certain of the passages in Phrygian Tucket acquired a more introspective feel. Soon , however, an increasing tempo and discord introduce a sense of building tension that is released in a dramatic full-keyboard arpeggio that ends the piece in sudden silence. The addition of the sounds from the tape definitely enhances the harpsichord and makes Phrygian Tucket an interesting blend of old and electronic.

bc30The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II was carefully programmed and impressively performed, combining old and new music as heard through the lens of the harpsichord. The audience responded with an extended ovation in appreciation. An encore followed by Ms. Cheng, a repeat of Les Baricades mysterieuses, the Francois Cuperin piece that nicely summed up the mixture of old and new that was the theme of the program.

Piano Spheres will next present a concert by Mark Robson at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles on February 11.

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The 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage was celebrated in Pasadena, California at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center with a concert by Gloria Cheng titled Two Sides of Cage’s Coin. The Boston Court venue is comfortably cozy and all but a few of the 100 seats were filled to hear Water Music and the entire sequence of Sonatas and Interludes. Despite the modern industrial construction of the hall – it has corrugated steel walls – and a play going on in the adjacent theater, the acoustics proved more than adequate for the intimate space.

John Cage was born in Los Angeles and has many connections here despite being known primarily as a New York composer. Cage studied with Schoenberg at UCLA – where Gloria Cheng is now a faculty member. He lived for a time in Pacific Palisades and later in Hollywood. Cage was also a colleague of Lou Harrison and taught at Mills College in the Bay area. To mark the centennial here in Los Angeles of the birth of John Cage – one of Americas most influential composers – is entirely fitting and appropriate.

The first piece on the program is known generically as Water Music but as Ms. Cheng explained the official title should be Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 because Cage had intended the title to be taken from wherever it was performed. This piece was first presented as 66 W. 12 at Woodstock, NY August 29, 1952 and so the title is updated on each playing. Water Music is partly music and partly performance – the score calls for a table radio, three kinds of whistles, cups and pitchers of water, a wooden stick and a deck of playing cards, all in addition to the piano. (A similar piece – Water Walk – was once performed by Cage himself on the old I’ve Got A Secret TV program and you can see this here on You Tube.)

Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 started with the rolling out of a small cart full of items to center stage – the radio plays – and Ms. Cheng began a series of activities such as pouring water from cup to pitcher, blowing various whistles, etc. This was all done by timing the sequence of actions with her iPhone (a nice 21st century touch) and following Cage’s score, which was projected overhead for all to see. No one brings as much dignity to the concert stage as Gloria Cheng, but she could have been a 1950s housewife scurrying about attending to various domestic chores. When the score called for a chord or two on the piano, however, everything changes: it is the virtuoso who – with just a few notes struck – suddenly and decisively shifts the focus to an artistic perspective. It is this overlap between the mundane and the suddenly artistic that makes this piece so intriguing – our ordinary lives are never quite removed from the arts – and art bleeds into our everyday experience.

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano was written over two years,1946 to 1948, at a time when John Cage was working with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Ms. Cheng explained that because there was no room in the dance studio for drums, Cage hit upon the idea of adding various pieces of hardware to the piano strings to give it a more percussive sound. He eventually devised explicit instructions on how the piano was to be prepared and he specifies individual types of screws, bolts and plastic pieces for each of 45 different notes on the piano. A complete chart by Cage showing how the piano is to be prepared was included in the program.

To those who have never heard a prepared piano the resulting sound invariably exceeds prior expectations. The lower prepared notes have a wonderful gong-like quality while the middle register can produce beautiful bell tones. The higher notes tend most toward the percussive, at times resembling the notes from a music box. The added texture of the prepared piano is fully explored in Sonatas and Interludes which are, by turns playful, dramatic, solemn, agitated, languid, mysterious and tranquil. The ‘Sonatas’ are played in groups of four followed an ‘Interlude’ for a total of 20 pieces – all played sequentially. This work was written at a time when Cage was studying South Asian music and culture – the various pieces in Sonatas and Interludes evoke a definite exotic and mystical feeling and are intended to portray the eight permanent human emotions as defined by Indian philosophy.

As might be expected, Sonatas and Interludes is a very challenging work for the performer – from the 3 hours of piano preparation time to understanding just how each note will feel and react. And of course you can see that the piece is technically difficult just by looking at the notes on the score – rapid runs of complex arpeggios, soft quiet stretches and dramatically loud passages. Because the hardware tends to shorten the duration of the sound when a prepared note is struck, this music is typically a sequence of single notes and rapid runs with very few long chords – a good test of the performer’s dexterity. Ms. Cheng was up to all of this but what impresses most is her ability to find just the right dynamic and “touch” for each section – even with 45 of the keys prepared. I asked her afterwords if she had much chance to practice on a prepared piano and she responded that at one time she did so but now feels confident given her experience with Cage’s music. In any event the results were well-received by the audience who brought Ms. Cheng back for two curtain calls amid much cheering. Gloria then invited those interested to come on stage to look inside the piano – and help her “de-prepare” it – a gracious gesture from an accomplished performer.

This concert was sponsored by Piano Spheres and information on their upcoming concert season can be found here.

 

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