Author: Gloria Cheng

Six Great Film Composers Tell Their Own Stories in Music for Solo Piano

When planning a recital, or a recording for that matter, it’s important to me to commingle works by composers who have a reason for being together, who share a connecting link of some sort. In the past I’ve combined John Adams with Terry Riley, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Steven Stucky with Witold Lutosławski, and Olivier Messiaen with Kaija Saariaho.

It’s important to me to commingle works by composers who have a reason for being together

Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano was just such a commingling, and a collaboration that was bound to happen one day given my years of living in Los Angeles and working with composers. In the first article of this series, I sang the praises of L.A. as a place to live and work as a musician. Outside of our prodigiously enlightened Los Angeles Philharmonic that engages fulltime musicians, it’s always been possible here for freelance players to keep very busy in the city’s many orchestras, opera companies, chamber series, and film studios, and even to have solo careers. They’ve been able do all of it in a place where there is no cognitive dissonance in having worked with both Pierre Boulez and John Williams.

Montage had its beginnings in 2011, when Bruce Broughton, a composer best known for his work in film and television and the recipient of 24 Emmy nominations and 10 wins among other awards, sent me a substantial surprise gift: his Five Pieces for Piano. The suite comprises five boldly delineated character pieces written in the exceptionally pianistic language of a composer who happens to be an accomplished pianist.

Around that time, I was preparing a recital for Tanglewood’s 2012 Festival of Contemporary Music, and had asked John Williams, who is among other things an annual headliner at Tanglewood, if he might have time to write a little something for it. We had talked for years about the possibility of a new piano piece, and I now had a perfect time and place at which to program it. I assured him, repeatedly, that even just a single page of music would do, just so that I could represent him on my program. In due course, he produced a short piece for me to play as an encore: “Phineas and Mumbette,” a richly imagined conversation between jazz legend Phineas Newborn, Jr., and Mumbette, a Berkshires-based slave who sued for her freedom in 1781 and won. And the piece was indeed only a single page of music:

From the Twitter feed of music engraver Joanne Kane showing four people holding John Williams's one-page solo piano score with a closer detail of the score below.

John Williams produced “just” a single page for Gloria’s Tanglewood recital. (Kudos to his copyists at Joanne Kane Music…this copy is now signed and framed on Gloria’s wall.)

Following that summer, with the pieces by John Williams and Bruce Broughton continuing to virtually stare at me from my piano every day, an enticing theme for a future recital, anchored by two eminent composers of worldwide renown for their film music, was presenting itself, and I was finding it impossible to ignore.

There was one minor glitch. Because the timings of the two pieces were far short of a full program, I would need to somehow convince a few more composers of similar ilk—and similar illustriousness, I hoped—to write additional pieces that would flesh out an eventual evening-length recital.

I approached composers whose film music I admired, and about whom I couldn’t help but wonder how they might write for solo piano. This is how, in addition to the works by Bruce Broughton and John Williams (who composed three additional movements to form a suite entitled Conversations), three new pieces came to be written for me by film music luminaries Don Davis (The Matrix trilogy), Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up, The Incredibles), and Randy Newman (The Natural, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc.). Instead of a new piece, Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Argo, The Grand Budapest Hotel), offered me a recent suite that he had composed for the pianist Lang Lang.

Film composers are always telling someone else’s story, and typically writing for large orchestras.

At the time, these six composers had collectively garnered 72 Oscar nominations and 8 wins (the numbers are both higher now). All six had written concert works in the past, but all had largely bypassed writing for solo piano. That’s precisely what interested me. These composers are acclaimed and awarded for their brilliance at managing multiple parameters with regard to style, narrative, tone, and timing. But they are always telling someone else’s story, and typically writing for large orchestras.

What would happen if everyone just left them alone to write a concert piece—for the piano, an instrument that just about every composer regards as a consequential challenge given its monumental repertoire and potential to reveal one’s truest, unadorned voice?

Randy Newman with Gloria Cheng at the piano.

Randy Newman with Gloria Cheng

Over the course of 2012-2013 the pieces arrived. In the cases of Don Davis and Michael Giacchino, all at once; with Randy Newman and John Williams, one movement at a time. The final steps prior to the November premiere were to coach with each of the composers and collect a program note in their own words about their pieces. The concert, presented by the Piano Spheres series, drew not only our loyal new music attendees but throngs of the composers’ fans. Except for the Paris-based Alexandre Desplat, the composers were in attendance and being surrounded like rock stars. I began the program with Bruce Broughton’s bracing Five Pieces, followed by Michael Giacchino’s wistful Composition 430, Don Davis’s modernist Surface Tension, Alexandre Desplat’s impressionist-tinged Trois Études, Randy Newman’s songful Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil, and Lionel Newman, and John Williams’ jazz-spiked Conversations. Many listeners found it fascinating to note whose piano pieces resembled their film music and whose did not.

Given the prominence of the six composers, it seemed inevitable and necessary to document their pieces on a recording. Harmonia Mundi took an interest. Two days of recording were booked with Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman in Herbert Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, the venue in which I had performed the concert.

As it turns out, the recording dates of Easter Sunday 2014 and the Monday after proved to be unexpectedly auspicious. Five of the six composers would be in town and said that they could and would attend the recording sessions. Only Alexandre Desplat was scheduled to be away from Los Angeles on those dates, but would be back soon afterwards.

When would a convergence of such celebrated composers working on the same project ever occur again? That’s when I got the crazy idea to make a documentary film. I imagined a film that would capture our interactions during the recording sessions, offer interviews with each of the composers, and chronicle the arduous process of getting our record “in the can.” A Kickstarter campaign drew close to 100 supporters whose generous donations provided major funding for the enterprise. Credit for coming up with Montage as the title for the project, encompassing both the album and film, goes to John Williams.

Gloria Cheng Montage CD Cover

The full story of recording this CD and ending up with a documentary about it would take many more paragraphs. It was an immense undertaking, and if amassing and practicing the collection for concert performance had been a challenge, managing the CD recording along with a film shoot presented multitudes more.

I had recorded four CDs already with Judith Sherman and knew how that would proceed; she would be tough and meticulous, and would work tirelessly with me towards a final edit for the CD release. I had engaged the noted film music authority Jon Burlingame to write a liner booklet essay that would accompany the composers’ own notes. My CD agenda was predictable and all set to go. But I knew nothing about making a film, and knew few people who did.

When one lives in Los Angeles, one finds “industry” people on every corner.

Luckily, when one lives in Los Angeles, one finds “industry” people on every corner. Not quite knowing how or where to start, I applied my Kickstarter funds towards hiring a next door neighbor, a different next door neighbor’s nephew, and that next door neighbor’s nephew’s friend! They organized the film crews for the recording sessions and also covered the follow-up interviews at Amblin Entertainment with John Williams and at my home with Alexandre Desplat, who had missed the recording sessions.

John Williams with Gloria Cheng

John Williams with Gloria Cheng.

In all, the crews had generated hundreds of hours of footage from multiple-camera shoots. Given the brilliant direction by my neighbor Joey Forsyte who supervised her crew as a fly on the wall during those long hours of recording takes, the film was assembled and polished over the course of two years by the gifted team at Breakwater Studios. Much precious, one-of-a-kind footage did not make it into the final film as it was edited to less than a half-hour; a quiet tête-à- tête between Randy Newman and John Williams reminiscing about the old days at 20th Century Fox sadly got cut. Nonetheless, our documentary won numerous festival awards, has aired on PBS SoCal six times, and, to our immense shock and joy, won the 2018 Los Angeles Area Emmy for Independent Programming.

The documentary broaches a wide range of topics. How do these composers vary their creative processes when writing for the concert hall instead of for a movie? “If a director wants you to turn left,” remarks Bruce Broughton in the film, “you’re advised to turn left. Writing a piece like this, I am the director; the piece is the film.” Most of the composers confess to being decidedly challenged by writing for piano. “There’s no hiding…you do worry more about every single note,” says Michael Giacchino. “It made me nervous,” confides Randy Newman. “I’m not ready to write again for piano,” vows Alexandre Desplat, with a laugh. “It took me a lot of time to figure it out!” The film also exposes the laboriousness—both onstage and in the booth—of recording a CD. We had a few laughs during those two days, but there was mostly fierce focus from us all and, in one of the film’s most talked-about moments, occasional frustration.

John Williams sums it up by saying, “Gloria has broken the mold by inviting film composers to be exactly not that, to be simply composers.” It is indeed the music itself that reveals a lesser-known but vibrant, expressive world inside of these six composers—an alternative, more intimate side of them that is often eclipsed by the spectacular popularity of their film music.

I find a strikingly clear voice in each of the pieces, each an unmistakable depiction of the person who wrote it. What I had hoped to learn by embarking on this project was: What happens when these composers, freed of the demands placed on them by a film, confront the challenge of composing for one of the most difficult instruments to write for? Although Montage: Great Film Composers couldn’t possibly provide all of the answers, we do get a little closer to finding out.

Reclimbing the Heaven Ladder

The idea for playing some joint recitals with Terry Riley was conceived in January 2017 when I met up with him at one of his solo concerts at Los Angeles’ Geffen Contemporary gallery. His twin grandchildren, Simone and Misha, were with him, and I was delighted to meet them. Until that day I had only known of them as the newborns who inspired the eponymous first and final movements of The Heaven Ladder, Book VII, Terry’s 35-minute pianistic tour-de-force completed in 1994. It was a piece that had been commissioned through a Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Grant by four pianists from around the country: Kathleen Supové, Stephen Drury, Charles Wells, and me. Kathleen had scheduled a June 1995 world premiere of the piece in NYC, and I gave its West coast premiere in October and recorded it for Telarc shortly afterwards.

“You mostly play written music and I almost always improvise.”

During our brief conversation at the Geffen, Terry and I agreed that it had been far too many years since I had performed the suite in full—and why not plan do so the following season in a concert that we’d play together? I would be the “opening act,” playing Terry’s Two Piano Pieces (1958/1959), The Walrus in Memoriam (1991, rev. 1993, written for Aki Takahashi’s Beatles project on EMI Records and based on “I Am the Walrus”), and the complete Heaven Ladder, Book 7. Terry would then take the stage with two semi-improvised pieces, Requiem for Wally (1997) and Simply M (2007). For our first such performance in March 2018, on the Los Angeles-based Piano Spheres series, Terry completed a 4-hands finale in the form of Cheng Tiger Growl Roar.  In an email as he was working on it, he wrote, “It will be a challenge as you mostly play written music and I almost always improvise, but I am sure it will be great and hopefully fun for both of us.”

In his youth Terry pursued training as a classical pianist; the renowned Bay Area-based Adolph Baller was one of his teachers. (As a student at Stanford some years later, I also studied with Baller.)  An online recording from Terry’s U.C. Berkeley Master’s degree performance of his Two Piano Pieces (1958/1959) reveals that he was already a stunning virtuoso destined to perform and compose extensively for the piano. Yet 35 years would pass before he composed his next fully notated piano piece, The Heaven Ladder, Book VII.

In terms of the stylistic and technical requirements for the pianist, the piece poses formidable challenges. The five movements are highly contrasting in style. “Misha’s Bear Dance” is a polymetric romp with “Russian” overtones. “Venus in ’94” is, in Terry’s words, “a waltz-scherzo with a somewhat edgy quality to its romanticism. Its beauty comes with a price-tap of quite a hazardous course, requiring the pianist to execute wide but delicate leaps through its intricate voicings and rhythms.” “Ragtempus Fugatis,” as its title implies, is a ragtime fugue that is labyrinthine and good-natured. “Fandango on the Heaven Ladder,” is a sensual Spanish-flavored fantasy. And finally, “Simone’s Lullaby,” is a tender love letter to Terry’s newborn grand-daughter.

The original score pages of The Heaven Ladder, Book 7, contained minimal performance indications or expressive markings. Terry has always been an awe-inspiring improviser who spins gorgeous, elaborate narratives out of the sparsest, if any, of printed instructions. I am not. I’m an interpreter—my imagination gets aroused by being the actor, not the playwright. Nonetheless, Terry’s directive on the title page of The Heaven Ladder, “Dynamics and phrasing should be worked out by the performer or in collaboration with the composer,” proved to be a daunting task.

Over the course of several months and with frequent changes of mind, I scribbled instructions to myself in Terry’s unadorned urtext, eventually making my own personal “edition” of the piece. It wasn’t only the dynamics and phrasing that required coordinated calibrating. Terry had left open any number of questions both big and small about pedaling, articulation, touch, pacing, tone color, movement order, and the essential nature and shape of his expressive forms. Balancing all of those elements in support of his massive 5-movement architectural design took a lot of experimentation. I made different choices almost daily during my practicing, and arrived at multiple versions that I believed to be equally viable. Finally, a few weeks before my October west coast premiere I committed to a basic interpretation and drove north to the Gold Rush town of Camptonville, the home of Terry and Ann Riley, to consult at the piano with Terry.

I recall Terry’s directions to his home as being as unembellished as a jazz chart.

Though Camptonville is a ten-hour drive from Los Angeles, I recall Terry’s directions to his home as being as unembellished as a jazz chart: “Just make a left off of Highway 49 onto Moonshine Road.” I stopped in San Francisco overnight and found the house the next day with no small amount of effort (remember that this was the pre-cellphone, Thomas Brothers Guide era). The street sign for Moonshine Road was non-existent. “Oh, people just love that sign so much,” said Ann upon my distracted arrival, “It gets stolen all the time.”

In 1994 Terry’s airy studio housed a 9-ft Yamaha Midi Grand, an array of microphones and synthesizers, an early Atari computer, and an assortment of instruments from India, the Middle East, and China. We sat down at the piano, but I didn’t get very far in playing the piece for Terry. Almost from the start, in phrase after phrase, we found ourselves to be in profound disagreement. Where I aimed for lyricism, he heard preciousness; where he asked for less rubato and more drive, I felt the results to be unmusical and square; where he felt many of my choices to be overly sentimental, I secretly believed that his requests rendered the music inexpressive. In the end, I channeled as much of Terry’s approach as my temperament and technique allowed for. The results of our interpretive wranglings of long ago found their way eventually into the first edition of the piece (offered until recently on Terry’s website), more comprehensively on the Telarc CD that I recorded 23 years ago, and in the beautiful Chester Music edition issued in 2015.

When I revisit my recording, I hear things that I would, and indeed do, play very differently now. I relearned the pieces from the 2015 published edition, and seeing our hard-won musical choices of 1994 “authenticated” there, I give myself occasional permission to disobey them. I didn’t consult my old recording until very close to the performance date. When I mentioned to Terry just before our concert that I would play the pieces very differently from the way I did on the recording, Terry responded “Oh, but I really love the way you played it on the recording.”

The cover for Gloria Cheng's 1998 Telarc CD featuring music by Terry Riley and John Adams

Gloria Cheng’s debut recording of Terry Riley’s The Heaven Ladder Book 7 (released on Telarc in 1998)

Performance decisions are never set in stone. With the passage of time, interpretations evolve. Not only can I now fully embrace the conception that Terry shared that day in his studio, but I’m also older and hopefully better at integrating his disposition with my own. One of the joys of preparing repertoire after a long hiatus is rediscovering it from a new perspective and finding new treasures in it. In this case, another pleasure has been the opportunity to compare notes (sometimes literally) and musical decisions with my friend Sarah Cahill, whose long and fruitful association with Terry is well known. Terry’s piano works, and the pianists who play it, as yet lack a long and varied interpretive tradition to draw upon. We are bonding with each other to create it.

Performance decisions are never set in stone.

When playing the music of composer-pianists, it’s possible to sense the anatomy of their hands, their innate physical approach to the keyboard, their idiosyncratic touch, even their comportment at the instrument. All of this finds its way into the shapes of their chords, passagework, and other characteristics, making the piano music of composer-pianists behave—and most assuredly feel, to other pianists—like a pianist wrote it. Terry’s music feels physically challenging under my fingers, but it is serious fun to channel his persona at the keyboard.

For me, playing works by composer-pianists also invites an excursion into their personal piano-playing histories. Terry’s primary relationship with the piano is that of an improviser—an extraordinary one. Expressing a lifetime of knowledge and experience from his studies of classical, jazz, contemporary, North African, and Indian classical music, his playing is widely known to defy stylistic boundaries. “A lot of intersections between these musics occur in my mind. As I’m writing or playing something like a raga, suddenly a kind of ragtime motive might come into it.” His composed music for piano, much of which emerges from his improvisations, does much the same thing, often switching multiple times within the same piece or movement. With his own virtuosic command of the piano at the service of his global, kaleidoscopic, consciousness-expanding imagination, I’m sure that he would welcome the idea of future classical pianists like me approaching his notated music with free flights of inventiveness rather than a conscientious fidelity to a decades-old conception of the score. Pianists of the future: take note!

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley playing piano four-hands (Photo by Carolyn Yarnell)

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley (Photo by Nick Volpert/recording.LA)

[Ed. note: Gloria Cheng will perform with Terry Riley and the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco on December 5, 2018 and again at California State University at Chico on March 6, 2019.]

Garlands for Steven Stucky

After the passing of Steven Stucky on Valentine’s Day of 2016, Christopher Rouse, Steve’s friend of 40 years, wrote on this website:

I don’t think I’m alone in seeing Steve as the sort of person we all wish we were. Even had he lacked the musical genius he did in fact possess, his way of living his life and treating all with kindness and respect would have been a model worth emulating for anyone. Loved by so many, we have lost not only a great composer, but the dearest of friends. I wonder how we will be able to go on without him.

Steve died much too soon—and for so many of us, unacceptably—at the age of 66. His unusually aggressive brain cancer had been diagnosed only three months earlier.

Steven Stucky died much too soon—and for so many of us, unacceptably—at the age of 66.

I met Steve in 1988 upon his arrival at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where I had been working steadily as an “extra” alongside the redoubtable principal keyboard player, Zita Carno. Steve’s tenure there as resident composer and new music advisor lasted for 21 years, the longest such affiliation between a composer and an American orchestra. I was a frequent participant during most of those years in much of the new music programming for the LA Phil’s orchestral series and Green Umbrella concerts. Steve, having largely determined much of that programming, was present at every rehearsal, always exuding his special combination of bemused, gracious, self-deprecating erudition. Over time we became friends, and his interests became my interests. As the foremost authority on the music of Witold Lutosławski, he was my guiding light as I prepared my CD Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky, and Lutosławski. The 2009 Grammy Award bestowed on me for that recording is an honor that I owe in no small part to Steve.

The day after Steve died, Deborah Borda, then-President of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, phoned to tell me about an April tribute concert already being organized by the Philharmonic. Several of Steve’s friends and former students were being invited to write short piano pieces (one or two minutes each) in Steve’s memory, and she asked me to organize the pianists. There would ultimately be six works, by Fang Man, Anders Hillborg, Magnus Lindberg, James Matheson, Joseph Phibbs, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, interspersed with music by Steve and Lutosławski. The pianists, all associated with Piano Spheres, Los Angeles’ piano series devoted to new music, would be, respectively, Mark Robson, Susan Svrček, Steven Vanhauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Vicki Ray, and myself.

Following the announcement of the upcoming program, I heard from a few of Steve’s countless composer friends who were expressing a wish to dedicate a piano homage of their own. Though I was not empowered to add them to the Philharmonic’s program, I knew that I couldn’t ignore their heartfelt offers, that I would be in touch afterwards, and that this had the makings of a very good idea that would embody all the goodness that Steve had brought to so many of our lives. Later that spring I began inviting them and others to contribute additional pieces to the initial set of six for a collection that would be called Garlands for Steven Stucky. With the original six pieces having been such powerful declarations of love and friendship, and knowing how many more of Steve’s eminent, emotionally devastated friends and students would want to honor him similarly, I felt that a CD would be the necessary endgame. Unsurprisingly, my wish list of essential invitees, compiled with the help of Christopher Rouse, Donald Crockett, and Steve’s widow, Kristen Stucky, grew very, very long. I had to limit the number to just 24 more composers who then wrote their hearts out to honor Steve in the way they do best.

The Garlands

Julia Adolphe: Snowprints
Julian Anderson: Capriccio
Charles Bodman Rae: Steven Stucky in memoriam
Chen Yi: In Memory of Steve
Louis Chiappetta: This is no less curious
Donald Crockett: Nella Luce
Brett Dean: Hommage à Lutosławski
Fang Man: That raindrops have hastened the falling flowers: in memory of Steven Stucky
Gabriela Frank: Harawi-cito de charanguista ciego
Daniel S. Godfrey: Glas
John Harbison: Waltz
Anders Hillborg: Just a Minute
Pierre Jalbert: Inscription
Jesse Jones: Reverie
William Kraft: Music for Gloria (In Memoriam Steven Stucky)
Hannah Lash: November
David Lefkowitz: In Memoriam: Steven Stucky
Magnus Lindberg: Fratello
David Liptak: Epitaph
Steven Mackey: A Few Things, in memory of Steve
James Matheson: CHAPTER I: In which our hero dies and encounters Palestrina, Brahms, Debussy, Ligeti, Lutosławski and other dead loves; looks out to see the entire universe before him, and prepares to visit all of the amazing shit therein
Colin Matthews: some moths for Steve
Harold Meltzer: Children’s Crusade
Eric Nathan: In memoriam
Joseph Phibbs: in memory of Steven Stucky
Kay Rhie: Interlude
Christopher Rouse: Muistomerkki
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Iscrizione
Michael Small: Debussy Window
Stephen Andrew Taylor: Green Trees Are Bending
Andrew Waggoner: …and Maura Brought Me Cookies (Remembering Steve)
Judith Weir: Chorale, For Steve

As the recording was shaping up to be a collective portrait of friendship, I invited two more of Steve’s trusted collaborators, Peabody Southwell (mezzo-soprano) and Carolyn Hove (oboe), to join me on the CD. Together, we close the recording with Steve’s Two Holy Sonnets of Donne (1982), based on John Donne’s defiant, mocking proclamations on the powerlessness of death.

Holding 32 individual, deeply-felt relationships in my hands has been fulfilling beyond words.

For the 32 composers, I imagine that it must have felt hardly possible to write a one- to two-minute piece that expressed all that they wanted to say about Steve. “How could I even begin to capture the depth and quiet intensity of this man?” asks Esa-Pekka Salonen in his liner note. For me, holding 32 such individual, deeply-felt relationships in my hands has been fulfilling beyond words. As reflections on Steve as a friend and teacher, the Garlands are by no means a compilation of mournful dirges. I note many cheery portrayals of him, such as in Julia Adolphe’s reimagining of his “giddy excitement” during composition lessons, Pierre Jalbert’s inclusion of a “fast rhythmic section (Steve’s wit and humor),” and Steven Mackey’s evocation of “the playful banter” that they shared. We also see Steve invoked several times in quotations of his music and of music that he loved, and in opening motives that seem to summon him with the pitches B-flat (si), E-flat (es), and G (sol), representing his initials.

Steven Stucky with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gloria Cheng,

Steven Stucky with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gloria Cheng (photo by Carlos Rodriguez)

Proceeds from our CD sales and royalties will be donated to the Steven Stucky Composer Fellowship Fund. The fund was established by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to honor Steve’s vision of engaging young composers in multi-year educational programs with the orchestra. The Composer Fellowship Program continues to flourish under Program Director Andrew Norman and Teaching Artist Sarah Gibson.

The Garlands project follows another CD honoring Steve, Steven Stucky: Chamber Music, issued a year ago by pianist Xak Bjerken, Steve’s longtime colleague at Cornell, on Open G Records. I believe that I speak for all of us in hoping that we might somehow be sending a thanks to Steve for enriching our lives as he did, and for leaving us with the enduring gifts of his music, his writings, and above all, the unforgettable feast that it was have him as such an extraordinary and exemplary friend.

Garlands for Steven Stucky (Bridge 9509). Photo by Jeffrey Herman.

Only in Los Angeles?

It could be said that Los Angeles has conspired, by countless means and for many decades, to make itself into as hospitable an environment for new music as possible.

L.A. has had a freewheeling attitude from its inception.

L.A. has had a freewheeling attitude from its inception. As early as 1925, around the time when John Cage was about to enter Los Angeles High School, the downtown Biltmore Hotel was playing host to Henry Cowell’s “New Music Society of California,” which championed works by Carl Ruggles, Leo Ornstein, Dane Rudhyar, Arnold Schoenberg, and Edgard Varèse. By the late ’20s even the Hollywood Bowl was programming performances of  “shockingly new music” by Béla Bartók, Arthur Honegger, Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky.

In the 1930s a vibrant jazz scene coalesced around Central Avenue, fostering talents such as Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette. At the same time, as a sanctuary city for some of Europe’s most celebrated artists and intellectuals fleeing Germany and eventually Europe, scores of exiled musicians were transplanting themselves into the film industry, local orchestras, and conservatories. With people like Schoenberg, Lotte Lehmann, and Ernst Krenek came a progressive outlook that persists to this day.

The Evenings on the Roof chamber series was founded in 1939 on the Rudolph Schindler-designed rooftop of Peter and Frances Yates’s Silverlake home, renamed the Monday Evening Concerts in 1954. It’s there that Schoenberg and Stravinsky famously avoided each other. Today MEC is still thriving and presenting uncompromising programs to capacity crowds. And yet it represents just one of the many Los Angeles contemporary music success stories.

I am a transplant to L.A, having grown up in New Jersey. As a child I studied with a painstakingly thorough and patient teacher, Isabelle Sant’Ambrogio, of Bloomfield. She assigned me exercises from Old World technical treatises such as Tobias Matthay’s The Act of Touch in All Its Diversity and readings from Josef and Rosina Lhévinne’s Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, plus weekly drills from George Wedge’s Applied Harmony and Keyboard Harmony. She also gave me my first assignments in the newest music from her era: pieces by Paul Creston, Walter Piston, and, most presciently, Aeolian Harp by Henry Cowell. I came to L.A. for the prospect of UCLA and working with Aube Tzerko, a former student and assistant to Artur Schnabel whose analytical insight into scores of any era was legendary. Though it was the canonic works of the 18th through early 20th century that I focused on with him during my studies, I later sought Mr. Tzerko’s wisdom just before auditioning for Pierre Boulez’s Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain. My intention was to play just three of their required works for him: Bach’s C#-minor Fugue in five voices, the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111, and Ravel’s Scarbo. After a few hours on that came the question, “What else is on the list?” Only after several more hours at the piano would he let me go, only after I had made sense—for him and for myself—of the remaining audition repertoire: the opening cadenza to Boulez’s Éclat, Stockhausen’s Klavierstúcke vii, Schoenberg’s Op. 33a and b, and the third of Bartók’s Op. 18 Studies. Even more enduring for me than Mr. Tzerko’s insights into works that he had never heard before (with the exception of the Schoenberg) was his resolute quest to understand the rhetoric of music and how best to express it. I made it into a group of three finalists, but ultimately did not win the EIC job. So I stayed in L.A.

In the early ’80s I received an invitation from Monday Evening Concerts directors Lawrence Morton and Dorrance Stalvey to perform with the MEC ensemble, giving me my first professional opportunity to play new music. The engagement marks the beginnings of a lifetime dedicated to collaborating with composers and playing, then commissioning, their music. I now wonder if it may have been the pianist Leonard Stein, longtime assistant and editor to Arnold Schoenberg, who recommended me to the venerated series, since I had recently performed the Op. 19 Sechs kleine Klavierstücke for a concert he had produced at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. If so, it would be Leonard who some decades later would come to plot a second life-changing opportunity for me and three of his other protégés in the form of the Piano Spheres concert series. More on that later.

Leonard Stein (photo by Betty Freeman)

Leonard Stein
(photo by Betty Freeman)

As much as I “took” to deciphering difficult new scores (I came of age when tonality had not yet begun its reascendence), my life’s course has been largely about Los Angeles having simply imposed its will on me. As an “extra” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for twenty years, I played beside the indomitable principal keyboard Zita Carno and effectively coincided with the tenures of team Esa-Pekka Salonen, as conductor, and Steven Stucky, as resident composer and new music advisor. Given their rather frequent programming of works that required two keyboards, this means that I was there for Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3 with Salonen in 1984 on his first visit to the orchestra. I was there to work with György Ligeti in Aventures, with Luciano Berio when he conducted Sinfonia, with Kaija Saariaho, Pierre Boulez, and John Adams every time they came to town, and on countless Green Umbrella programs. The orchestra took me on international tours, enlisted me on recordings of Lutosławski’s Third, Salonen’s L.A. Variations, and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and engaged me as a Messiaen soloist first with Zubin Mehta and then with Pierre Boulez. These were extraordinary experiences for me as a young pianist. As I became steeped in the culture of the LA Phil, I took pride in being part of its boldly progressive ethos—and adopted it, as did the city as a whole.

My life’s course has been largely about Los Angeles having simply imposed its will on me.

The monthly salons hosted in the 1980s by the music patron Betty Freeman in her Beverly Hills home were rarefied yet wonderfully informal affairs. Surrounded by artworks of Sam Francis, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, and more, young local composers would present their music, and then, after a brief interval comprising cocktails and homemade pasta, an established composer would do the same, each in conversation with the crusty late critic Alan Rich. The storied conductor, composer, pianist, and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky reportedly did not miss a single salon, at which the likes of John Harbison, Joan La Barbara, Conlon Nancarrow, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich, Anthony Davis, John Adams, William Kraft, György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, Witold Lutosławski, younger composers Carl Stone, Rand Steiger, Laura Karpman, and many others shared their music as they did nowhere else. As new music benefaction goes, Betty was legendary (she even funded my first commission for a piece by Mark Applebaum), and her salons cemented an enduring community of hardcore new music devotees in L.A. But she was just one of a number of generous new music lovers in this city whose patronage then and now has made big things possible.

Los Angeles continues to imprint its forward-looking ideology on unsuspecting patrons, musicians, and audiences. In recent years, the city has become even more of a mecca for composers and musicians with its well-documented status as a place where new music is created, cultivated, and embraced. I remember the Australian composer Brett Dean being stunned at walking out to address a packed Green Umbrella crowd in Walt Disney Concert Hall, saying that it was largest audience for a new music concert he had ever seen, and by far the most enthusiastic. That was 2006, and things have only gotten better.

For their current centennial season the LA Phil is presenting no fewer than 54 commissions, 58 premieres, and music by 61 living composers. Employment opportunities are still plentiful in film and TV (and now video games), and these draw diverse, multifaceted composers, while area orchestras and opera companies beyond the deeply rooted LA Phil and LA Opera fill their ranks from the local freelance pool. There is work to be had and new music to played with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Long Beach Symphony, Long Beach Opera, Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony, New West Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Southeast Symphony, and Santa Monica Symphony. Orchestras and chamber series alike restrict their rehearsal schedules to evenings in order to accommodate the sort of musician who records a Star Wars soundtrack with John Williams by day and attends a Harrison Birtwistle rehearsal for the Jacaranda series that night.

The Santa Monica-based Jacaranda series is prominent amongst L.A.’s adventurous presenters of contemporary chamber music and draws big audiences for its imaginative programs of contemporary fare. Now in its 16th season, the fall concerts feature pianist Kathleen Supové playing music of Dylan Mattingly and the Lyris Quartet playing works by Pavel Haas, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Jörg Widmann. New music thrives as well at venues such as Monk Space, in recent initiatives such as The Industry, HEAR NOW festival, and WasteLAnd, and with the inspired programming of young ensembles wild Up, Hocket, Brightwork, Aperture Duo, and Panic Duo.

Piano Spheres, a recital series devoted to new music for the piano, was the creation of Leonard Stein, the founding director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. Leonard taught seminars about Schoenberg for the University of Southern California, where four new music-minded pianists—Vicki Ray, Mark Robson, Susan Svrcek, and myself—were enrolled as doctoral students. (The ASI was housed in a jewel of a modernist structure, where, especially affecting, was the replica of Schoenberg’s study, complete with piano and writing desk on which sat his bulging Rolodex.). It was the four of us whom he invited to join his new venture with the mission of exploring the far reaches of the repertoire and creating the piano literature of the future.  Leonard died in 2004, but Piano Spheres has continued on and is now celebrating its 25th season.  Our programs are as varied as we are, and by now we have presented more than 80 world or U.S. premieres and commissioned a minimum of one new work per year. For the four of us, the significance of Piano Spheres in our artistic lives, and the fulfillment it has given each of us, cannot be overstated. At this quarter-century milestone, we have a growing list of emerging pianists whom we are now welcoming to the series, as Leonard did for us.

Piano Spheres

Piano Spheres

Having spent all of my working life and more in Los Angeles, I recall that during my coming-of-age a frequent topic of conversation was the friendly feud between Los Angeles and New York for primacy in the music world. L.A. has long borne the indignity of being broadly dismissed as hopelessly uncultivated. Many continued to feel as Otto Klemperer did, who upon his 1933 arrival as the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic had lamented, “My God, my God, I didn’t know that such a lack of intellectuality existed.”

As the city and its musical institutions began maturing into what they are today, I recall bold new initiatives frequently responded to with a self-congratulatory “this could only happen in L.A.” By now it is accepted wisdom that L.A. is adventurous, ambitious, and generous towards new music.

By now it is accepted wisdom that L.A. is adventurous, ambitious, and generous towards new music.

The gloating has diminished. Our new music calendar is indeed full, lively, and provocative, but I doubt that this progress could have happened “only in L.A.” Let’s hope not. But luckily for L.A., the seeds were planted long ago for its eventual transformation from “cultural desert” into a target destination for composers and musicians. The word is out that L.A. can provide not just a bounty of opportunities in new music, but a city-wide sensibility that inspires its musicians to create new ones.

Speaking and Understanding the Language of Other Universes



Gloria Cheng
Photo by Christian Steiner

Pianist Gloria Cheng‘s commentary below was adapted from an address to the Music Critics Association of North America at the National Critics Conference in Los Angeles on May 26, 2005.

As a performer who has for many years been steeped in the music of our time, my experiences include many deep joys, delights, and surprises, as well as a fair share of headaches! A few recent experiences have left a strong impression on me.

A very gifted young composer, Stephen Andrew Taylor of Champaign-Urbana, recently wrote a thirty-five-minute solo work for me that required an entire year to learn thoroughly for its scheduled premiere on our Los Angeles-based Piano Spheres series. One of the reasons I chose Taylor was the breadth of his musical tastes; he is a good friend of many years who knows as much about Björk and Pink Martini as he does about Adès, Ligeti, and Messiaen. The piece he wrote for me, entitled Seven Memorials, was everything I had hoped for: rich, colorful, dramatic, risky, powerful, and heartbreakingly beautiful. I estimate that I easily spent 1,000 or more practice hours on this work over the course of a year. When I mentioned how technically difficult many passages were, Steve’s reaction was “Really? Gloria, I thought nothing was hard for you and that you sight-read everything perfectly and that you are a piano goddess!”

Flattering as this may have been to hear, it is dead wrong!

Esa-Pekka Salonen composed Dichotomie for me in the fall of 2000. I received the second movement three weeks before the scheduled world premiere, and it took all I had in me to master it in time. While making some edits prior to the NYC performance that December, he one day faxed pages and pages of thirty-second notes to me as a replacement for an already quite frenetic passage. We ended up scrapping the changes when I pronounced them utterly impossible for ten fingers to execute. More recently, last February I tackled Esa-Pekka’s brief new Preludes. One of them, composed on an airplane in an unforgivingly flowing Ravel-ian vein, met with alarm on several occasions: Paul Crossley, for whom it was written, reacted, Esa-Pekka tells me, with a long string of curse words; Emanuel Ax, sympathizing with me for my upcoming U.S. premiere, took one look and said, “Have you told him that he shouldn’t write like this? This is really hard. You should tell him.” (As an aside, Manny may have had self-interest at heart: Esa-Pekka was just beginning work on a new piece for Manny’s Ballade project next season at Carnegie!) My own reaction was to attempt to play through the first two measures and then put it away for a few weeks, hoping that I was having a nightmare. “It’s only two minutes out of your life,” teased Esa-Pekka. Yes, but how many hours went into making those two minutes happen? I would estimate it in the low hundreds.

If even these erudite and engaged composers could have such misconceived notions about the toil that underlies the process of preparing their work for performance, then how much understanding is there outside of our little circle?

Recently I’ve been reading some fascinating accounts of a new language that was fabricated for the new film The Interpreter. The movie is a political thriller starring Nicole Kidman as a U.N. interpreter raised in Matobo, a fictional country located somewhere between Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Director Sydney Pollack commissioned Mr. Said el-Gheithy of London’s Centre for African Language Learning to create the “Ku” language of the native Matobians. The sound of Ku, i.e. the pronunciation of vowels, consonants, and the fundamental grammatical structures, had to resemble existing southern African languages. Five hundred words were invented for the movie. As El-Geithy described his challenge: “Literally, I had to create everything from scratch. I had to give a sense of reality to the language. It is not just a translation exercise. It is a language, structure, and comprehensible speech.” A secondary challenge was that of crafting a suitable accent with which to lace Kidman’s spoken English. Since almost every African country was colonized at some point in its history by Belgium, England, or Germany, a dialect coach was brought in to inflect Kidman’s English pronunciation with an accurate cultural and historical mix.

Composers, of course, devote their lives to inventing new languages from scratch. These languages, too, are shaped by the cultural and historical mix unique, in our current Extremely-Post-Common Practice era, to each individual. Composers write with distinctly personal grammatical structures, vocabularies, intonations, gestures, and inflections. The performer’s job is not only to learn the language fluently by mastering the notes and instructions on the page, but also to absorb the unique idiosyncrasies of the language so that it is performed with no “accent” of any kind. A foreign accent can be very charming in speech. But I find it difficult to listen to a performance of Beethoven executed beautifully but with incongruous hallmarks appropriate to a performance of, say, Debussy. Likewise, my “classical” approach to jazz falls painfully short if I don’t make what is for me a conscious effort to assume the subtleties of touch and time that mark that language. Inhabiting the right universe is paramount in shaping a stylistically germane performance!

A performer will best speak the composer’s vernacular when armed with a thorough understanding of the forces that have shaped it. For instance, when I play the gorgeous, filigreed passages in George Crumb’s piano music, I appropriate the love of Chopin that inspired them; when I play recent John Adams, I abandon myself to his sense of humor as well as to the joy he finds in Nancarrow; when I play Takemitsu, I embrace his reverence for the eloquent silence; when I play the unhinged music of Elliott Carter, I absorb and deliver the fantasy and wit which lurks in his notational rigor.

The performer’s challenge has always been to see beyond the dots on the page. Notation and metronome markings are easily misinterpreted or over-applied by the most earnest of us. But literalness in interpretation, whether in music of the Common Practice era or not, will kill the music. A performer’s flexibility, imagination, and clarity of understanding are more essential than ever in presenting new works to first-time listeners. Just as an uninformed performance can obscure or even destroy a great work, a great performance can ennoble a merely good work by communicating this new language, that is, the music, with savvy and deep understanding.

For starters, learning the notes to a new composition is a slow and tedious process, even for piano goddesses! Patterns do not fall familiarly under our fingers as when we play standard repertoire. Taking on a work in a contemporary idiom is akin to our first lessons in French, when we must work our muscles around those vowels, or Mandarin lessons when we are just learning the four tones by reciting “po1, po2, po3, po4, mo1, mo2, mo3, mo4.” Though we may be making the right sounds more or less, we are far from speaking the language. Even once we have mastered the rules of grammar, acquired some vocabulary, and gained some fluency, it doesn’t mean we are expressing ourselves in our new language with the eloquence of a native speaker. True fluency means that thinking in that language is spontaneous and second-nature. Analogously, the task of learning a new work involves not only committing notes to fingers in order to execute them with fluency, but conveying those notes in a way that is so natural and idiomatic that you the listener will hear not the language but the meaning of the music. This is a difficult job, and there are infinite ways to get things wrong.

Coaching the 12 Notations for piano with Pierre Boulez prior to performing them at the 1992 Ojai Festival was one of the best lessons I’ve ever had in allowing the music to speak to me. The Notations are epigrammatic works that Boulez composed at the age of 20, and they are potent with poetic expression but spare in gesture and texture. I remember him sitting down to demonstrate a simple, pale line that I had been digging into with an inappropriately round, singing sound, and immediately I understood the tenderness and delicacy that this music was meant to convey. As he played, he created phrases that were not explicitly notated; he took pauses which defied the measured rests in the score; he exploited the ultimate extremes of the dynamic registers. It was a liberating moment for me and reminded me that notation is the best means a composer has to get ideas on paper, but it is no more than a detailed guide. My lesson with Pierre gave me the insight I needed to unlock the door to his universe, and my performance that weekend was transformed by the experience.

Separating a fabulous performance from a problematic piece, or a problematic performance from a fabulous piece, can be difficult. Nonetheless, these are totally separate entities that in the best scenario serve to complement and elevate each other. Critics of new work in other performance fields: movies, dance, and theater, consistently address the screenplay, choreography, and script as separate from the performances. Music critics, especially confronted with strange foreign languages, perhaps have a trickier job. Nonetheless, as much as we all live for those earthmoving, practically religious experiences that music can provide, these experiences can arrive in response to the composition, to the performance, or to any combined blend of the two.

Musicians count on critics’ sophistication as seasoned listeners to illuminate and evaluate both the composition and the presentation for a wider public. We expect them to treat composition and performance as distinct endeavors and to give informed consideration to the separate but enormous weight that both the composer and the interpreter share in the collaborative act of introducing new work. Just as a successful premiere hinges upon the symbiosis of a great work with a great performance, I believe that performers must share responsibility as well for the premature dismissal of certain works by a public unequipped to imagine an alternative and more charismatic presentation.

Music critics have a difficult job, indeed. They are expected to publicly, authoritatively, and instantly assess the music and performances they have just heard. But if I could so miss the essence of Boulez’s Notations when I had lived with them for weeks, then don’t critics ever feel, upon a first hearing, that they may be missing something? Don’t they find it difficult to evaluate a complex new work on a single hearing? Don’t they find it difficult to evaluate a performance if the composition itself is impenetrable, or weak? Doesn’t it sometimes take several hearings, or being in the right circumstances, to click with a piece? I remember suddenly opening up to late Stravinsky after viewing a Picasso retrospective at MoMA; I remember responding more strongly to Ligeti upon hearing a CD of his music away from home in a friend’s pre-war apartment on a gloomy day in Cologne.

Dealing with new music has always presented challenges that familiar music does not; Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective documents many unfriendly rushes to judgment. A good dose of compassion on all sides is probably a good idea: for the composer who might have had a creative block, for the performer who might have gamely struggled onstage because she just received the second movement three weeks ago, for the music that might have suffered from an oboe player’s uncooperative reed. Meanwhile, we who are the bugs under the glass of critics’ opinions need to understand that they too face pressures of their own.

The reason I love my involvement with new music is that it has led me to universes that I could never otherwise have imagined. Each is a very private universe conceived from a rich personal history, philosophy, and culture; each somehow traces indefinable facets of human experience; each invites a response from deep within me. Every composer’s musical language is so personal and unique; the best are eloquent, persuasive, surprising, and ingenious. Understanding them requires openness, respect, humility…and a lot of patience. My world has grown bigger and more interesting for every composer I have committed time to. New soundworlds have revealed themselves to me in every instance. To mix a metaphor, some of these universes become lifelong loves that grow and evolve over time, some become great friends, some we want never to visit again. But the more openness we can show in the face of a new encounter, the richer our lives become.

Would I trade all of this universe-hopping for the option of staying within the time-tested, inarguably wonderful universe of Common Practice Famous Classical Composers? No, I don’t think so. I have come to enjoy space travel far too much for that!