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Pieces from the American masters

Gloria Cheng charms audiences with provocative and unusual choices.

October 23, 2003|Daniel Cariaga | Special to The Times

For the best part of a decade, the five brilliant pianists who make up the Piano Spheres team have delighted a sophisticated and growing audience with provocative programs of recent, unusual and neglected areas of the repertory.

At the second concert of the group's 10th season Tuesday night in Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, Gloria Cheng continued that tradition with a selection of music by American masters.

The most engaging and pianistically idiomatic works bookended the program: the late Jacob Druckman's "The Seven Deadly Sins" (1955) and William Kraft's "Translucences" (1979).

Both are transparently emotional essays in non-tonal style, and both were delineated by Cheng with force and sensitivity. In Druckman's suite of variations, "Pride" emerges with leonine dignity; "Envy" slithers deviously; "Anger" is not loud, but fast and skittish; and so forth. Kraft's cogent, nine-minute piece deals in multicolored expressivity and a playful serialism.

Kraft was in the audience, as was Steven Stucky, whose recent "Album Leaves," also nine minutes, promises much from a composer who has only lately begun writing for solo piano. It is attractive and idiomatic.

John Harbison's Sonata No. 1, multi-textured and virtuosic, deserves wider currency. Cheng played it, as all the rest of the demanding program, with an assurance and communicativeness that revealed its charms.

A longtime advocate of the thorny music of Elliott Carter, Cheng also played two recent caprices, "Retrouvailles" and "90+" -- brief but dense pianistic essays -- and the massive "Night Fantasies" (1980). The latter remains disturbing and challenging a quarter-century later.

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