YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Key Champion of the New

Pianist Gloria Cheng-Cochran specializes in today's gnarliest music--much of it made especially with her in mind.

May 11, 1997|Timothy Mangan | Timothy Mangan is a frequent contributor to Calendar

One night last June, at 3 a.m., Gloria Cheng-Cochran's fax machine stirred to life. On the other end, in another time zone, Pierre Boulez fed paper into his.

Nothing unusual there. Avant-garde composers are always calling up the 42-year-old pianist, a specialist in new music, the harder the better. Esa-Pekka Salonen has done it. Gyorgy Ligeti has done it. So have Witold Lutoslawski and countless others, including Boulez on many occasions. After hearing her audition for his Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain in 1987, the French composer became one of her biggest fans, designating her for featured roles in Los Angeles with the Philharmonic, and at the Ojai Festival, in 1989, 1992 and 1996.

This time, however, he wasn't asking her to learn a difficult new work on short notice. He was, instead, sending her a gift. The pages of a new composition, "courtes derives a partir d'eclat," written especially for Cheng-Cochran's upcoming wedding, 10 days away, were rolling out.

The fax didn't come completely out of the blue, Cheng-Cochran explains. She had slipped a request to the composer the month before for a work to play at her wedding--"he owed me," she says laughing--but had since stopped thinking about it. Getting up to investigate, she was flabbergasted. "I mean, five minutes later the pages were still pouring out and I thought, ah, this is it! He did it!"

The title of the work, roughly translated as "Short Derivations From Eclat," is a pun on the titles of pieces ("Eclat" and "Derive I" and "Derive II") Cheng-Cochran had slaved over for the composer. She describes the piece as a bonbon, though it's hard to imagine the iconoclastic Boulez writing such a thing. But then it's hard to imagine him making a pun too.

Cheng-Cochran is making a lot of things happen in contemporary music these days. She commissions pieces from composers well-known and not so well-known. She records. She is a ubiquitous performer. And she's getting a reputation. When Salonen asked her to play his solo piano work "YTA II," she asked him, "Is it difficult?" His reply: "Not for you, Gloria."

On Tuesday, in the final event of the Piano Spheres series, Cheng-Cochran will perform a demanding slew of contemporary pieces for piano, and piano and tape, by Messiaen, Takemitsu, Nono, Jonathan Harvey, Leon Milo and Javier Alvarez, as well as the West Coast public premiere of the Boulez "bonbon." As husband Connor Freff Cochran notes, even after two decades of living in Southern California, she's "only intermittently laid-back."

Friendly and a little ill at ease talking about herself, Cheng-Cochran, born in New Jersey, began studying piano at age 4 with her mother. The standard repertoire was always the basis for her studies, but her subsequent private teacher, Isabelle Sant'Ambrogio, who Cheng-Cochran counts as a profound influence, slipped modern music into the mix.

She attended college at SUNY Stony Brook for a year, working with Gilbert Kalish, then moved on to Stanford where her practical parents insisted she earn a degree in economics. Determined to continue in music, she made her own way to graduate and post-graduate music degrees at UCLA and USC, where her teachers were Aube Tzerko and John Perry.

Along the way, she caught the new music bug. "I would go to new music concerts," she recalls, sitting in her Monterey Hills condo, "and be totally mystified by them, and I just became intrigued. I thought, 'What is this?' I wanted to understand it better."

Understanding it better is what drives Cheng-Cochran to this day. Her work with the California EAR Unit, as a regular participant in the Green Umbrella Concerts and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at festivals in Santa Fe, Tanglewood, Aspen, Brussels and elsewhere, has brought her into close contact with composers--a key for her in developing an understanding and interpretation of a new piece. She particularly enjoys working one on one with composers, "hashing" pieces out with them, as she says.

It doesn't necessarily go smoothly. Her collaboration with Terry Riley on "The Heaven Ladder, Book 7"--a work commissioned and recorded by her, though as yet unreleased--was one such occasion. Riley, a pianist himself, delivered a sketchy manuscript, devoid of specifics. To fill that void, Cheng-Cochran created what she calls an "edition" of the work--a scheme of articulation, phrasing, pedaling and dynamics--in order to perform it. Playing the work for the composer, she found herself "at loggerheads" with him over that edition. "We really had vastly different [ideas] about the approach that was necessary to bring this music to life.

"So I worked very hard to incorporate his suggestions. In the end, I think I probably arrived at something midway between his ideas and my own. Finally, I recorded it and I sent him the test CD and he's very pleased with it. He said, 'You know, it's surprisingly beautiful what you ended up doing.' "

Los Angeles Times Articles