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Music review: Gloria Cheng opens Piano Spheres’ 18th season

September 21, 2011 |  2:35 pm

Gloria Cheng
The late composer Luciano Berio called his small but potent book of Harvard lectures “Remembering the Future.” And that seemingly paradoxical phrase informed Gloria Cheng’s nearly all-British Piano Spheres program Tuesday night at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall.

In the first half, the pianist offered the United States premiere of Bernard Rands’ 12 Preludes. An impressionistic, emotionally draining 40-minute work, it’s the first of 15 premieres planned this season by the venerable recital series, now in its 18th year.

Before the performance, the English-born Rands, based in the United States since 1975 (he became a citizen in 1983), touchingly told the audience that he owed “much of what I am as a musician” to Berio, his mentor and friend. And a Berio-like sense of music history and lyricism pervaded Rands’ Preludes. Dedicated to the pianist Robert Levin, who performed the world premiere in 2007, the score conjured a sound world that Debussy would recognize. At the same time, the melancholy cast of many of the pieces was Rands’ own.

Cheng’s precision, warm tone and sensitive, resonant pedaling conveyed enough variety to put the largely elegiac work across, whether in the fourth Prelude, Elegia (In memoriam Luciano Berio), the introspective eighth, Lamento, or the haunting concluding Notturno (In memoriam Don Martino).

After intermission, Cheng offered the U.S. premiere of Gavin Bryars’ “Ramble on Cortona,” summoning waves of sound from the keyboard and lending coherence to the seemingly improvisatory 10-minute piece. Then Cheng announced a reordering of her program, wisely saving the shorter dance pieces for the end. She gave a playful rendition of George Benjamin’s darkly comic “Relativity Rag,” or as Cheng called it, “the little rag that couldn’t.” And in Oliver Knussen’s poignant “Ophelia’s Last Dance,” composed in memory of his wife Sue, who died in 2003, Cheng caught the intimate, hallucinatory quality of grief without sentimentality.

Delightful readings of Harrison Birtwistle’s “Betty Freeman: Her Tango,” and Samuel Barber’s “Hesitation Tango,” from his suite “Souvenirs,” followed. Her encore was Don Davis’ tongue-in-cheek “Illicit Felicity.” 

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-- Rick Schultz

Photo: Pianist Gloria Cheng kicks off the 18th season of Piano Spheres in Zipper Hall at the Coburn School. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times.

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