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Piano Spheres' secret is out

September 21, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

FOR the last dozen years, a small but devout band of piano fans in the know has known that there is no better concert deal in town than a $20 ticket for Piano Spheres. This collective of four pianists with inquiring minds, sensational fingers and sterling musicianship puts together smart, unusual programs full of discovery and satisfaction.

I have never left one of its concerts disappointed, nor have I known anyone who has. If there has ever been a bad Piano Spheres review, I've not seen it and probably wouldn't believe it.

But Tuesday night, when Gloria Cheng began a new season for the series in Zipper Hall, something had changed. The auditorium was nearly full. Piano Spheres is no longer one of the best-kept secrets in town. Also unusual were Cheng's invitations to four very different sorts of colleagues to share the stage with her.

Robert Winter, a well-known Beethoven scholar and music popularizer, joined in for the two-piano version of Beethoven's gargantuan "Grosse Fuge." Grant Gershon, the popular music director of the Master Chorale, sat at the second piano for "Hallelujah Junction," which John Adams wrote for him and Cheng in 1997. Another conductor, Neal Stulberg, currently visiting director of orchestral studies at UCLA, was her partner for Saint-Saens' Variations on a Theme by Beethoven.

That was hardly all. On her own, Cheng played an early piece, "Still Sorrowing," by Thomas Ades -- the young British composer, pianist and conductor who will be a special guest soloist in the series Dec. 5 -- with crystalline beauty. She tackled persuasively two impressive post-Minimalist, post-Messiaen movements from Steven Taylor's "Seven Memorials," which she premiered two years ago.

And she was joined by a young soprano for another early Ades work, "Life Story," with a wistfully nasty text by Tennessee Williams. The young soprano was Angel Blue, who is in the graduate opera program at UCLA. She is also a beauty queen (a runner-up to Miss California). She wore stilettos, a short skirt and a big beauty pageant smile.

She also exhibited a very big talent. She began in a disarmingly breathy, jazzy tone, which she soon proved she could turn on and off at the drop of a hat. In fact, she made this short text about a one-night stand that ends with a cigarette after sex, drowsily dropped in a hotel bed, funny, sexy, disturbing and ultimately devastating. She has killer high notes and killer theatrical instincts.

Cheng, here, was a pianistic straight-woman, calm, collected, meticulous, judicious, insisting on ultimate respect for the score and the perfect support for Blue. Drama, yes; nonsense, no.

But with the "Grosse Fuge," Cheng had her work cut out for her, and not just in her commanding mastery of Beethoven's visionary fugue, written as the finale of a late string quartet and later arranged by the composer for two pianos. She had to be the rock on which Winter could rely. Once a formidable pianist, he has allowed his technique to lapse but remains an interesting musician.

No such problems with the conductors, both superb pianists. Saint-Saens' variations are full of filigree, and Cheng and Stulberg made the trills and arpeggios not just enticing frosting on a Beethoven cake but almost as exciting as Ades' real-deal glitter.

Other pianists have taken up Adams' "Hallelujah Junction," a Minimalist romp. But Cheng and Gershon own it and understand exactly its mixture of dazzle and laid-back repetitions.

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