Gloria Cheng Delivers World Premieres of Three Great Composers: Steven Stucky, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Witold Lutoslawski
The tie that binds composers Steven Stucky, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Witold Lutoslawski is similar to that of son, brother and father. “Whatever the actual differences in the sound of our music (which are substantial), Esa-Pekka and I also occupy similar territory on the aesthetic spectrum,” says Stucky. “However different our early backgrounds – he in Helsinki, absorbing the High Modernist European avant-garde at an early age, I in the American Midwest and Southwest on a steady diet of Copland – we have arrived at similar points, cherishing a ‘French’ sensitivity to timbre and instrumental gesture, a love of order, in short the whole Debussy-Stravinsky outlook that shaped not only Lutoslawski, but us in our turn.”
These similarities and more are captured in the world premiere pieces that pianist Gloria Cheng vividly brings to life on a new release by Telarc International, Gloria Cheng: Piano Music By Salonen, Stucky and Lutoslawski.
Steven Stucky’s “Four Album Leaves” and “Three Little Variations for David” are his first real piano pieces written since his childhood. His lack of confidence as a pianist and the grandeur of the instrument itself made him a bit shy at composing for piano for many years. The short pieces that make up the collective “Four Album Leaves” are similar to that of the character pieces of Schumann, Chopin or Brahms.
Stucky was long interested in composition that depends more on the “clarity, pungency, and immediacy of a single, arresting sound-image” rather than that of a long-spun narrative. “I can readily imagine doing a few more album leaves like these in the future,” he says, “both for callisthenic value and because, as Magnus Lindberg puts it, the piano is an excellent lie detector for composers.”
For a while, Finnish-born Esa-Pekka Salonen’s spectacular successes as a conductor threatened to overshadow his achievements as a composer. He has always been “a composer who conducts,” and despite his celebrity as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, his fame as a composer has spread steadily in recent years. Much like Stucky’s “Album Leaves,” Salonen’s “Dichotomie” was originally meant to be a short piece, written to surprise Gloria Cheng for a Los Angeles concert dedicated to his music in January 2000. However, he soon realized that “the material I had invented had a tendency to grow into two very different kinds of music… It became obvious that this was going to be a longer piece in two movements, as the material seemed to have that sort of genetic code. I missed my deadline for the January concert and kept working during the early months of the year 2000. I put the piece aside for the summer, and finally completed it in October of the same year.”
Yta is Swedish for “surface.” Salonen wrote his Yta series — Yta I (alto flute), Yta II (piano), Yta III (cello) — with particular performer friends in mind. Each piece captures and explores the subtleties of its respective instrument, as well as the virtuosity of the musician playing it. Salonen also confessed to Gloria Cheng that Yta II was influenced by the typical slapstick conventions of animated cartoons, particularly the moment in which the cat – not yet realizing that he has just run full-speed off the edge of the cliff – is still running madly in mid-air.
Witold Lutoslawski (1913-94), arguably Poland’s greatest composer since Chopin, is best known for his magnificent orchestral canvases of the 1960s onward, such as the Cello Concerto and the Third and Fourth Symphonies. His early work is less well known, partly because much of it was destroyed during the razing of Warsaw by the German occupation forces in 1944. One survivor, though, was his piano sonata, written in 1934 while he was still a composition student of Witold Maliszewski and piano student of Jerzy Lefeld at the Warsaw Conservatory. The work was never published during his lifetime, but PWM, the Polish music publishing company, released an edition after his death. Gloria Cheng’s premiere recording is based on a combination of three sources: the PWM edition, a photocopy of a manuscript of the sonata written in the hand of the composer’s late wife, Danuta, and detailed discussions with Charles Bodman Rae, a leading expert on Lutoslawski’s music.
Gloria Cheng is widely recognized as one of today’s foremost interpreters of contemporary music, having garnered universal acclaim for her colorful performances and her unassuming virtuosity and musicality. She has premiered dozens of new compositions, including works composed specifically for her by John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Terry Riley, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and many others. Cheng's solo discography on Telarc includes Piano Music of John Adams and Terry Riley and Piano Dance: A 20th-Century Portrait. Cheng is currently on the faculty at UCLA.