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Music review: Gloria Cheng begins Piano Spheres season [updated]

September 29, 2010 |  2:24 pm

Piano Spheres began its 17th season Tuesday night with a recital by Gloria Cheng. Her typically inventive program included the most recent piano pieces of Pierre Boulez and Thomas Adès and three world premieres, maintaining the Piano Spheres tradition of being up to date.

The tightknit local new music community nearly filled the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. Film music luminaries – John Williams and Don Davis (the composer of the “Matrix” trilogy) – attended. Cheng, who is such a fixture on the new music circuit that she can be taken for granted, wasn’t this time. Her playing was illuminating and bursting with radiant sonorities. The audience was rapt and enthusiastic. It was a balmy, perfect evening downtown. More than one person came up to me after the concert, lingering in the lobby and beaming, with the line “only in L.A.”

We probably need to watch the gloating. But the fact is, Piano Spheres – unlike, say, food trucks or Lindsay Lohan – is a nourishing, lasting L.A. invention and one that – unlike, say, food trucks or Lohan – would be hard to export. The collective of four pianists (Vicki Ray, Mark Robson and Susan Svrcek are the others) was begun by their mentor, Leonard Stein, who died in 2004. But torches pass. Programming this season is adventurous, seductive and individual. And Cheng’s opening recital set, from the start, a lofty standard.

That start was Boulez’s “Une Page d’Éphéméride,” which is more than a page and more than ephemera. It is a five-minute score written five years ago that the composer hopes to use as the germ for a much larger piano piece. I hope he finds the time, Boulez having spent much of this year, his 85th, on the podium.

Boulez writes hyper-active music. Sonorities change constantly. Violent and meditative gestures, deep resonances and high-pitched bell-like filigree, constantly contrast. But stillness and flurry in Boulez are merely opposite sides of the same keyboard coin. “Ephemera” implies magic, and this score, floating just out of narrative reach, is an astonishing musical juggling act.

Boulez was followed by Claude Vivier’s “Pianoforte,” a short, strange and moody early score written by the Canadian composer in 1975, eight years before his murder at age 34. He too liked Boulezian bells, which he fleshed out with jazzy sonorities.

The rest of the program’s first half, all new or nearly new music, had the character of a contemporary composer connecting with an earlier one. Adès’ three mazurkas were premiered last year by Emanuel Ax, and a tribute to Chopin. This was already their third local performance (Ax played them in Walt Disney Concert Hall and the composer performed them Monday night at a benefit dinner for Jacaranda, the Santa Monica new music group). Cheng’s interpretation was the most playful. She uncovered Adès’ mostly hidden dance rhythms, unraveled his contrapuntal intricacies, and bathed the little pieces in a distinctive glimmer.

Gernot Wolfgang's “Still Waters,” the first of the three new pieces, felt a little, in Cheng’s words, like “Schoenberg meets Bill Evans.” The score is not active but interesting in the thickness of its textures and its darkish sonorities.

Cheng and Newton In his program note, composer James Newton wrote that “Looking Above, the Faith of Joseph” was meant as a kind of conversation between the jazz pianists Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor and Yvonne Loriod (Messiaen’s wife and muse). A phrase begun in the style of one finishes in the style of another. This then is inherently jumpy music, owned by no single voice.

Daniel S. Godfrey’s “Night Walk” doesn’t have specific references, but it had Tuesday the aura of a late-Romantic American music slightly updated. Cheng here produced a mellow glow for muted sonorities. Debussy wasn’t too far away.

The single work after intermission was Messiaen’s Eight Preludes, which were written in 1929 when the composer was 20. Debussy really wasn’t very far away. Debussy’s preludes were still relatively new music, and the young Messiaen aped them with his titles (such as “A Reflection in the Wind”). Debussy’s sonorities became impetus for Messiaen’s sonorities and so did the older composer’s colors.

But Messiaen had a harmonic and melodic sweetness already his own as well as a passion for chirping birds. I have no idea what Messiaen meant when he spoke of these preludes being “violet, orange, purple.” Color in music is suggestive. But color is also something we all recognize, and Cheng had colors galore, whatever they were, coming from the keys. She has long been one of our most gratifying Messiaen pianists, and here she phrased with warmth and made the piano resound in a way that made Messiaen irresistible.

-- Mark Swed

[Updated: An earlier version of this review misspelled Thelonious Monk's first name and had Don Davis' first name as Dan.]

Photos: top, Gloria Cheng performing at Zipper Hall Tuesday night; bottom, Cheng with composer James Newton. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.