interview: gloria cheng

Gloria Cheng opens the Piano Spheres ninth season with a compelling program of contemporary works, including the premiere of two works by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. Gloria discusses her program in this interview.

bravagloriaQ. You will be giving the West Coast premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Jubilees. This piece is particularly notable because Lindberg usually composes in much larger forms. How do the six short movements of this suite form a harmonious entity?A. The six Jubilees began as a single Jubilee composed for Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday in 2000. Magnus placed it first in the set, which explores and develops various aspects of that original material. I suspect that the richness of ideas that abounds in the first Jubilee must have made it impossible for him to leave it at that. All the Jubilees emanate organically out of the first, and together they feel cohesive and complete. It’s hard for me to imagine them apart from the others at this point because they work so well as they are now.

Q. As a tribute to Earle Brown, who passed away this past summer, you have chosen to perform Four Systems. The notation for this work is a series of lines rather than notes on a traditional staff with a key signature. How do you read this music and interpret it?

A. Nancy Perloff at the Getty Center recently informed me, much to my surprise, that David Tudor, who premiered and championed many of Earle’s graphic scores, prepared performance scores for himself using standard fixed notation rather than creating new renderings of the graphics each time. My first response to this was that it seemed to defeat the purpose and take away from the openness and spontaneity that graphic notation offers, and yet I’m finding that I’m doing somewhat the same thing for myself. The fun of translating a squiggle into a musical gesture remains, but the pre-planning controls things in a way that makes a performer like me a bit more comfortable. I knew Earle from many summers at Aspen, and he was a mensch, and I wanted to honor him on this recital.

Q. Toru Takemitsu believed that sounds should have the freedom to breathe. How does he accomplish this in For Away?

A. All of Takemitsu’s works evoke a feeling of freedom, fluidity, floating, and a gentleness that everyone who knew him speaks of. In spite of the very strict notation, including meticulous note values and metronome indications, the piece is like a freeflowing improvisation with tons of rubato, and as you say, freedom to breathe.

Q. Chinary Ung is known to be a master of fusing Cambodian folk melodies and Western composition techniques. How does he achieve this in Seven Mirrors?

A. Chinary Ung’s piece is drenched with the colors and sounds that he knows from growing up in Cambodia, enhanced by close work with Varèse once he arrived in the U.S. The piece is extravagant and exotic and luxurious and sensuous, with many open spaces in which to lose oneself in the sheer beauty of the sound. He conceived of the piece as seven cadenzas, and so it is very free and fantastical.

Q. You are playing works by Dutilleux that range from his very early career (Résonances,1965), to the Three Préludes which date from 1973, 1977, and 1988. How does Dutilleux’s style shine through over such a long time span?

A. The balance of fantasy and rigor in Dutilleux’s music reminds me a bit of Lutoslawski’s music. There is a preoccupation always with resonance: using tricky pedal effects and the like, which link his music nicely with that of Takemitsu and Lindberg on this current program. Also, Dutilleux was very fascinated with symmetrical constructions: the third Prélude is called Le jeu des contraires, or The Game of Opposites, and takes place around a horizontal axis. His music is very clear, and the titles of the other two Préludes also give the listener a handle on what to listen for: D’ombre et de silence (Of Shadow and Silence) and Sur un même accord (On the Same Chord).

Q. You have collaborated with such distinguished composers as Pierre Boulez, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams and Elliott Carter. How have you benefited as a pianist from these collaborations?

A. My collaborations with composers have been the touchstone of my life as a musician. I love getting inside their minds and having them there to tell me how they hear their music, a process I find to be highly intimate, and infinitely interesting. It’s a great privilege to have a composer’s input when preparing his or her music for a performance. Working with composers, not only in shaping a performance of a finished work but often also in exchanging ideas prior to the work’s completion, is without a doubt the most satisfying aspect of my musical career.