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Salonen piano pieces frame Cheng recital

October 02, 2008|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

Gloria Cheng's opening recital in the "Piano Spheres" series, Tuesday at Zipper Hall, lacked neither variety nor programmatic cohesion, given her plotting of composers with, as the pianist explained, "musical interconnections."

A rediscovered 1934 student piece by Witold Lutoslawski, for example, was linked to composers Steven Stucky and Esa-Pekka Salonen, avid champions of the elder Polish composer.

A world premiere from wily Irishman Gerald Barry fed naturally into music of similar approach by great American maverick Charles Ives.

Diversity and deft plotting aside, though, the evening's primary spotlight was -- perhaps inevitably -- on Salonen, with two pieces of his framing the recital. We were offered a glancing view of the composer's development between the vintages of his 1985 "Yta II" and his more substantial "Dichotomie," from 2000.

This is a bittersweet season in Los Angeles, the swan song in Salonen's long and globally admired tenure helming the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Salonen's handsome mug beams outside Walt Disney Concert Hall, across the street from the Zipper. Salonen's presence seems more looming than ever, on the verge of his departure.

Opening the show, "Yta II" (yta is Swedish for "surface") offers a crisp focus on ideas and gestures and a whiff of the wit of Salonen's later writing. Ending on a cloud of post-Impressionist sound, even this early piece embodies Salonen's inspired ability to meld the sensuous and the cerebral.

Such well-honed duality runs yet deeper in "Dichotomie," written for Cheng and capping the recital with muscle and moxie. As the two movement titles imply, "Mecanisme" deals with restlessly knotty kinetics, while "Organisme" basks in a cool-yet-warm lyricism and vaporous Messiean-ish texture.

Oddly, Lutoslawski's Piano Sonata, penned at age 21, was this program's least interesting score -- an unremarkable bit of post-Ravel writing, scarcely foreshadowing the composer's mature Modernist style. Uncharacteristically for the masterful Cheng, she got lost a few times during an otherwise radiant reading.

Things went much smoother with her premiere of Barry's "Le Vieux Sourd," a juicy little piece commissioned by Betty Freeman. The composer's slyness comes through, sonically and even in the title, "the old deaf one," Debussy's dismissive nickname for Beethoven. Barry's score is an adventure in a fog, and a not at all unpleasant fog, ending with a playful mash-up of "Auld Lang Syne."

Ives' "The Alcotts," from his masterpiece "Concord" Sonata, proved the perfect follow-up, especially via Cheng's incisive hands and mind.

Stucky's role here consisted of intriguing miniatures. Clever and occasionally poignant "Happy Birthday" variations feed his "Three Little Variations for David." For an encore, Cheng brought out Stucky's "First Album Leaf," an ephemeral wisp of dusky pianistic beauty, sensitively delivered by one of contemporary piano music's greatest proponents.

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