Gloria Cheng: The Intrepid Harpsichord
April 30, 2013
By Gloria Cheng
My enchantment with the harpsichord and its repertoire began in childhood with the recordings of Wanda Landowska, whose wiry sound and fanciful concept of Baroque music departed so intriguingly from all that I was learning in my piano lessons. My fascination deepened while enrolled in music history courses with some of Stanford’s great early music specialists, but it was in Paris that I fell in permanent love with the instrument. Living there on a post-graduate grant, my studio was adjacent to that of the eminent American harpsichordist, Charlotte Mattax. Charlotte’s frequent sojourns from Paris to Amsterdam for lessons with Gustav Leonhardt inspired my envy, along with wondrous fantasies conflating my love of the repertoire with the seductive mysteries of Baroque ornamentations, figured basses, tunings, and temperaments, and the gorgeousness of the instruments themselves, whose Flemish block-printed patterns, Latin inscriptions, gold leaf borders, and exquisite soundboard decorations utterly bedazzled me.
So when a few years ago my friend Sally Mosher forwarded an ad for a vintage 1964 French double-manual harpsichord kit based on a model by the master 18th-century builder, Pascal Taskin, I took note. The seller was an Orange County piano teacher whose late husband had abandoned the project long ago after assembling no more than the outer case.
Of course it was, and would be, a challenge for anyone to build, but I had that part covered: after around 500 weekend and evening hours spent in our garage over the course of a year, my stupendously gifted husband, Lefteris, completed the instrument that sits onstage tonight. It turned out beautifully, as you can see, and as you will hear. Lefteris even made it possible, after I casually remarked, “Gee, I’ll probably want to play at both modern and historical pitch,” to make it a “transposing” instrument, whose adjustable keyboard can perform at the lower historical pitch standards as well as at today’s brighter levels.
There is so much more I’d love to tell about the immense skill, ingenuity, artistry, love, patience, and pride that went into the making of this instrument, but Lefteris asked me to keep a lid on all that.
So, since the lid of this intrepid harpsichord is already opened wide, we’ll allow it – and the intrepid composers who have written for it – to tell the rest of the story.
Michelangelo Rossi, 1601-1656
Toccata VII (1634)
Though he held prominent positions as both a composer and organist in and around Rome, Michelanglo Rossi “del Violino” was most famed during his lifetime as a virtuoso violinist. His ten keyboard Toccatas are his best-known works, admired for their audacious chromaticism. They show the influence of the preceding generation of boldly innovative Italian composers including Carlo Gesualdo and, especially, Girolamo Frescobaldi, with whom Rossi is reputed to have studied.
Armand-Louis Couperin, 1727-1789
This member of the Couperin musical dynasty, the great-grandson of Louis and a cousin of François “Le Grand,” was best known as one of the finest organists of his era, and he served at Paris’ most illustrious churches: Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, and St. Gervais. His felicitous marriage to Elisabeth-Antoinette Blanchet, the daughter of one of France’s premiere harpsichord builders, explains his large body of works for the instrument. Though his compositions were largely dismissed during his lifetime for their conservatism, some modern listeners might detect a certain recurring chord sequence that became ubiquitous in 1950’s pop and beyond!
Karen Tanaka, b. 1961
Jardin des herbes (1989)
Karen Tanaka is an exceptionally versatile composer and pianist. Her musical education began with piano lessons when she was four years old followed by formal composition lessons from the age of ten. After studying composition with Akira Miyoshi at Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, she moved to Paris in 1986 to study with Tristan Murail and work at IRCAM. In 1987, she was awarded the Gaudeamus Prize at the International Music Week in Amsterdam. She studied with Luciano Berio in Florence in 1990-91. In 1998 she was appointed as Co-Artistic Director of the Yatsugatake Kogen Music Festival, previously directed by Toru Takemitsu. Her works have been performed by distinguished orchestras and ensembles worldwide including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and conductors including Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kent Nagano. Various choreographers and dance companies, including Wayne McGregor and Nederlands Dans Theater, have often featured her music. In 2012, she was a composition fellow at the Sundance Institute Composers Lab for feature film. Karen Tanaka teaches composition at California Institute of the Arts.
The composer writes:
Jardin des herbes was written for Japanese harpsichordist Akiko Kuwagata. It consists of three short pieces: Rosemary, Sweet Violet and Lavender. My intention was to weave color and scent of herbs into the sound of harpsichord.
1. Rosemary: A bush with pale blue flowers glowing in the moonlight…
2. Sweet violet: Early spring flowers with seductive scent.
3. Lavender: The fragrance of purple blooms flows gently in the wind.
Stephen Andrew Taylor, b. 1965)
Stephen Andrew Taylor composes music that explores boundaries between art and science. His first orchestra commission, Unapproachable Light, inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the New Testament, was premiered by the American Composers Orchestra in 1996 in Carnegie Hall. Other works include Seven Memorials, a 30-minute cycle for piano inspired by the work of Maya Lin and premiered by Gloria Cheng in Los Angeles, 2004. Paradises Lost, a science-fiction opera based on a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, was premiered in Portland, Oregon and at the University of Illinois in 2012. Born in 1965, he grew up in Illinois and studied at Northwestern and Cornell Universities, and the California Institute of the Arts; his music has won awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Composers, Inc., the Debussy Trio, and ASCAP. Among his commissions are works for Pink Martini and the Oregon Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, Quartet New Generation, and Piano Spheres. He also collaborates with Pink Martini and rock singer Storm Large. Taylor is Associate Professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he lives with his spouse, artist Hua Nian, and their two children.
The composer writes:
Ubiquitin belongs to a series of pieces I’m composing as a kind of 21st-century “program music.” Instead of getting inspired by, say, waterfalls, these pieces attempt to sonify genetic data. Ubiquitin is a tiny protein that appears in nearly every multi-celled creature on Earth: since it marks parts of cells to be recycled, one of its nicknames is “angel of death” (this slightly sinister connotation works well with the harpsichord). The chain of amino acids which forms ubiquitin is 76 molecules long; each is translated to a bar of music, which together form larger structures including alpha helixes (canons), beta sheets (driving arpeggios), and random coil (free fantasias).
William Kraft, b. 1923
The distinguished composer William Kraft is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he served for 11 years (1991 – 2002) as Chair of the Composition Department and Corwin Professor of Music Composition. From 1981-85, Mr. Kraft was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence and the founding director of the orchestra’s performing arm for contemporary music, the Philharmonic New Music Group. Mr. Kraft was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 26 years; eight years as percussionist, and eighteen as Principal Timpanist. For three seasons he was also assistant conductor of the orchestra, and thereafter, frequent guest conductor. Mr. Kraft served as Stravinsky’s timpanist and percussionist in charge of all percussion activities for the composer’s Los Angeles performances and recordings. As a percussion soloist, he performed in the American premieres of Stockhausen’s Zyklus and Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maitre, in addition to recording Histoire du Soldat under Stravinsky’s direction. In 2013 Mr. Kraft is to be awarded the Certificate of Distinction by New Music USA. Currently he is working on a commissioned piece for Boston Musica Viva.
The composer writes:
In our time, one is seldom, if ever, asked to compose for the harpsichord. It is an anachronism, e.g. no pedal after the 19th century fully pedaled romantic piano!? I had to put a book under the sustaining pedal to restrain the automatic depression of my foot!
Despite the many hurdles and challenges, a commission from Piano Spheres for my dear friend and much admired demonic pianist Gloria Cheng could not be denied.
I referred to the marvelous and multitudinous works of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and to my contemporary harpsichord friends in Poland, Marta Ptaszynska, Zygmunt Krauze, and to György Ligeti, to see how they attacked the idiom.
What I have come up with is a 7-minute, one-movement work in eleven sections which are more contiguous than distinct – sometimes related and developmental, sometimes contrasting. The piece is dominated by a two-note ostinato and aggressive clusters. These two ideas are intertwined to create a sense of unity. A brief homage is paid to Scarlatti within the piece and at the close.
György Ligeti, 1923-2006
Hungarian Rock (Chaconne) (1978), Continuum (1968)
Ligeti, about whom so much has already been written, had the voracious curiosity and irrepressible temperament of a precocious child, and found inspiration in everything under the sun. Continuum is a bravura display of Ligeti’s fascination with perceptual mind games found in mechanical music, in the rhythmic innovations of Steve Reich and Conlon Nancarrow, the art of M.C. Escher, and in the fractal mathematics of Benoit Mandelbrot. He aimed to make “a piece that would be a paradoxically continuous sound…but that would have to consist of innumerable thin slices of salami.” Hungarian Rock (Chaconne) was Ligeti’s “ironic remark” to his composition students, whom he perceived as retrogressing towards pop music in their new work. Though he loved the music of the Beatles, Supertramp, and the jazz greats from Louis Armstrong to Chick Corea, Ligeti here hybridizes his beloved Hungarian folk influences with a “retro” statement of his own, a madcap update on the Baroque ostinato form.
Louis Couperin (1626-1661)
Prélude non mésuré, C major
Louis Couperin’s reputation, compared to that of his star nephew, François, was severely curtailed by an untimely death that precluded the widespread exposure that his work deserved. Yet he is one of the 17th century’s most significant keyboard composers, and his unmeasured preludes are among the most striking examples of his originality. Referred to by François Couperin as “musical prose,” unmeasured preludes take their inspiration from Renaissance lutenists’ practice of improvising in performance, either to test their instruments or to usher in another piece of music. Despite their bewildering notation, solely in whole notes but with precise pitch indications, Louis Couperin’s unmeasured preludes are meticulously detailed compositions in an improvisatory style, and fully engage the performer’s imagination and spontaneity.
Jacques Duphly, 1715-1789
Duphly was a popular composer, harpsichordist, and teacher, prompting Pascal Taskin (the harpsichord maker on whose model tonight’s instrument is based) to declare him the best music teacher in all of Paris. La Forqueray portrays a well-known musician in Duphly’s circle: Antoine Forqueray, a composer and virtuoso performer of the viola da gamba. Set in a low range that corresponds to that of the bass viol on which Forqueray excelled, this somber rondeau in the key of F minor reveals the full glory and richness of the Taskin instrument’s bass register as he Taskin so masterfully designed it.
François Couperin, 1668-1733
Les Barricades mystérieuses (1717)
Couperin “Le Grand” (The Great) represents the epitome of French harpsichord composition, and served both Louis XIV and XV as court organist, harpsichordist, composer, and teacher to members of the royal family. A prolific and influential composer, his pedagogical treatise on harpsichord playing (L’art de toucher le clavecin) prevails today as a first-stop guide to Baroque performance practice. The enigmatic title of this rondeau has inspired endless speculation over the centuries, and remains an unsolved mystery. Among the many composers captivated by the work are former Police guitarist, Andy Summers, and Thomas Adès, who in 1994 arranged it for clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello, and double bass. With its serene and steadfast suspensions binding all in the mellow key of B-flat major, Adès considered Les Barricades to be “a better composition lesson than any he’d received from his teachers, an object lesson in how to generate melody from harmony and vice versa.” (Tom Service, The Guardian).
Lei Liang, b. 1972
Some Empty Thoughts of a Person from Edo (2001)
Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (b.1972)’s music has been described as “hauntingly beautiful” by the New York Times, and “far, far out of the ordinary, brilliantly original and inarguably gorgeous” by the Washington Post. Winner of the 2011 Rome Prize, he is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Aaron Copland Award. He was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for the inaugural concert of the CONTACT! new music series. Lei Liang received his degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music (BM and MM) and Harvard University (PhD), studying with Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Robert Cogan, Chaya Czernowin, and Mario Davidovsky. His solo discs are released on Naxos, Mode, New World, and Encounter Records. His music is published exclusively by Schott Music Corporation (New York). Lei Liang currently serves as Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Composition Area at the University of California, San Diego.
The composer writes:
Some Empty Thoughts of a Person from Edo was written for and dedicated to Takae Ohnishi who gave its premiere in Osaka, Japan on March 3rd, 2001. In this piece, I intend to allude to the repertoire of plucked instruments in Japanese and Korean musical traditions, especially music of koto and kayagum. It reflects a person gone astray in fancy, absorbed in beauty, perpetuated in sorrow. Virtually, it is a transcription of my improvisation recorded on February 15th, 2001—a method of composition nurtured by my father during my childhood and one that had deserted me for years. Empty Thoughts became a passport to reclaim some parts of past.
Veronika Krausas, b. 1963
l’ombre du luth (the shadow of the lute) (2012)
The works of composer Veronika Krausas are performed throughout Europe and North America. The Globe & Mail (Toronto) says “her works, whose organic, lyrical sense of storytelling are supported by a rigid formal elegance, give her audiences a sense that nature’s frozen objects are springing to life.” Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times said of The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth, her chamber opera, “Something novel this way comes.” This opera will have two new productions this year with the Fort Worth Opera and New Fangled Opera in New Orleans. Her music will also be featured at the Céret Music Festival this summer in France. Krausas is on faculty in the Composition Department and the Director of Theory at the Thornton School of Music at USC, on the advisory council of Jacaranda Music, an associate artist with The Industry, a lecturer at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and an artist with Catalysis Projects. www.veronikakrausas.com
The composer writes:
This work is inspired by Louis Couperin’s Unmeasured Preludes and written for Gloria Cheng’s new blue harpsichord, built by Leftéris Padavos.
The style of the work references Renaissance unmeasured preludes for the lute that tested out the instrument before it performed other works. By 1650, Louis Couperin began to write unmeasured preludes for the harpsichord that maintained the improvisatory character of the works for lute, with the duration of each note and the dynamics left to the discretion of the performer. This new work continues this tradition, testing out Gloria’s new harpsichord, which also has a lute stop that is used at the end of the work.
L’ombre du luth is dedicated to the memory of Gloria’s mother Lorraine Cheng, who passed away on December 29, 2012.
Stephen Montague, b. 1943
Phrygian Tucket (1993), for amplified harpsichord & tape
Stephen Montague is an Anglo/American composer born and educated in the USA but living in Europe since 1972, first as a Fulbright Scholar in Warsaw (1972-74) and since 1974 in London where he works as a freelance composer. His works have been performed worldwide by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists which include the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, The National Symphony, the Royal Ballet, Hilliard Ensemble, Pacifica Quartet, and pianists Stephen Kovacevich and Marc-André Hamelin.
His 70th birthday was celebrated last month in London with 3 concerts devoted to his music. Recent commissions have included the BBC Symphony Chorus/brass/percussion for the BBC Proms (Royal Albert Hall, London) and a harpsichord concerto, Phrygian Ferment, for Scotland’s Sound Festival 2012. Composer Portrait concerts have recently taken place in Houston, Chicago, London, Vienna, and Budapest. He is the Featured Composer this autumn at Ohio State’s Contemporary Music Festival, Columbus (11-16 November).
CDs include a collection of his keyboard and chamber works entitled “Southern Lament” [NMC label (UK) D118] winner of the International Piano Award: “Best New Piano Recording of 2006”. In addition to his music activities he is also an active tennis player and the former Florida State JC Tennis Champion. His music is published by UMP (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The composer writes:
Phrygian Tucket belongs to a series of toccatas for various instruments which I began in 1977 with Paramell I (muted trombone & muted piano) and have occasionally added to over the years with works like Behold a Pale Horse (organ) and Aeolian Furies (accordion).
The work is written in the phrygian mode (e to e on the keyboard) and makes use of driving, pulsating rhythmic figures which accelerate to the end of the work. A computer generated tape part supplements the harpsichord sound with the feeling of a sustaining pedal but ultimately adds an explosive element to the harpsichord clusters in the finale.
Tucket is a medieval term for a signal or flourish played by trumpets and drums. The work was commissioned by the Polish harpsichordist Elizabeth Chojnacka and inspired by her fiery virtuosity not only in fast, brilliant fingerwork, but also her quiet sensitivity in soft passages. The first performance was at Centre Pompidou, Paris, in January, 1994. It has been played throughout Europe for nearly 20 years, and recorded, but tonight’s performance is its US premiere.
© Gloria Cheng
“The world of contemporary keyboard music has few champions as valiant and sensitive as the Los Angeles pianist Gloria Cheng, whose playing combines technical fervor with a wonderful mastery of color and tone.”
San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2013