Gloria Cheng opened the Piano Spheres season last night at Zipper Hall. Much of the concert comprised selections from her recent recording, Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky and Lutoslawski, and if you don’t yet have this in your library, now is a good time to correct your omission. And here’s just one of its good reviews (just scroll down).

Betty Freeman commissioned a new work from Gerald Barry for Cheng to perform, and this opened the second half of the program. Le Vieux Sourd [the old deaf one], Debussy’s nickname for Beethoven, starts with quiet fragments of classical themes, as if you’re eavesdropping on a pianist just noodling around instead of practicing. Some distant “explosions” (Barry’s description) occur and get closer as the volume swells. The work then ends with loud settings of Auld Lang Syne (not the setting Beethoven did) fighting to be heard against the explosions and the loud extracts of other themes. My impression was of an angry Charles Ives, perhaps after a few too many drinks, writing something to force an audience to pay attention to his music. But the idiosyncratic work, wild and wacky, was fun. Cheng then balanced this work with the “Alcott” movement of Ives’ Second Sonata, and her lyricism seemed to beautifully reflect Ives’ intentions. This was an apt choice to accompany the Barry, with its Beethoven theme and its multiple threads.

There were three peaks in the concert. First was the youthful, student-written Piano Sonata (1934) of Lutoslawski. It’s a lovely work, and Cheng is doing the right thing in reviving it. (Although apparently played often by Lutoslawski, he never published it, and its first publication was only four years ago; Cheng said that she know of only one other pianist who has played the work since.) The work has a strong French accent; the ties to Ravel are noticeable, and Stucky has identified other influences as well. But even though the 21-year-old Lutoslawski did not have his own distinctive voice, he could certainly write well. This is a pleasure to hear, and by itself justifies listening to the recording. The second peak for me was Cheng’s performance of the Ives selection.

And then the climax, closing the concert, was her performance of Salonen’s Dichotomie (2000), written for Cheng. She commented before starting the work that she no longer needs to wear gloves as protections for her hands during the performance (the glissandos are fearsome), and she has all of the many performance demands well under her own control and interpretation. She enables this work to present the stimulating composer Salonen has become.

And speaking of “the man”, the Phil’s Opening Night Gala is just a few hours away. Don’t most opening galas contain all the old war-horses and songs from operetta? Not here. The Thursday night program doesn’t include a single piece written before the twentieth century; the composers are Stravinsky, Adams and Ligeti with songs provided by Sondheim, Stravinsky, Ellington, and this delightful number by Cahn and Styne being given a well-deserved encore this year. Oh, yes, Dawn Upshaw and Barbara Hannigan are the other soloists.

This, of course, is a year of transition, with a much-diminished set of programs for Salonen. Esa-Pekka’s last concert as music director will be an encore concert on Sunday, April 19, conducting mid-period Stravinsky . Oh, we’ve had some nice years with our Finn! It’s of course too early to even speculate what directions Dudamel will establish for his band next season, but I’m pleased he is undertaking some adventurous works in his two programs. Other highlights of the coming season include the third return of Thomas Ades, a new symphony by Part, Dawn Upshaw in Kurtag’s “Kafka Fragments”, a nice homage to the avant-garde with a program of Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti and Cage, Saariaho’s “Passion of Simone” with Upshaw (finally, after two reschedulings), the Andriessen Double Piano Concerto, followed by his “De Stijl” as part of a program with Tuur and Mackey, the John Adams “A Flowering Tree” and an evening of compositions he selects. I counted 39 concerts with no music written before the 20th century.

By JerryZ

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