Gloria Cheng is an uncommon artist. A specialist in contemporary piano literature, she has made a career championing new music and performing programs of adventurous (which is to say, esoteric) works. She is a frequent collaborator with some of the leading lights of contemporary music, including Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen. In this recital on Friday at the University of Maryland’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall, Cheng offered an intellectually challenging and yet emotionally engaging evening of contemporary music from ten different composers.

Gloria Cheng ©
Gloria Cheng

Cheng’s recital was as much an act of advocacy as it was of artistry. The pianist undertook noticeable efforts to render these rarely heard works—almost all of which were written in the current century—accessible. She prefaced each set of pieces with substantive remarks from the stage. On the first half of the program, works from different composers were grouped together based upon some thematic relationship. Many of the individual pieces themselves were programmatic in the post-Debussy sense. The choice of repertory also seemed to reflect an artist actively searching for emotional content, rather than merely dry intellectualism, in contemporary music.

Throughout the evening, Cheng exhibited a formidable technique, exacting and often aggressive articulation, and careful attention to the balance of voices. Only occasional over-pedaling—magnified by a small, acoustically resonant recital hall—detracted somewhat from the admirable clarity of Cheng’s playing. Always evident was a probing musical mind in motion, wrestling with the twists and turns of these challenging scores. The pianism on display was first-rate, even if the music itself sometimes was not.

The recital began with a delicate, moody performance of John Cage’s Dream from 1948, a piece that builds upon small motivic patterns and rhythmic groupings to sustain echoes and resonances of understated beauty. Cheng then offered an impassioned account of the shifting moods and emotional turbulence of Kaija Sariaho’s Prelude (2006).

Harrison Birtwistle’s Betty Freeman: Her Tango (2001) is a slight, occasional piece in which Cheng found humor and jauntiness. David Liptak’s Starlight (2009), intended to evoke the diverse and elusive qualities of celestial illumination, drew from Cheng luminous playing contrasted with passages of spikiness. Pierre Boulez’s Une page d’éphéméride (2005), another evocation of the cosmos, emerged as an inspired work bursting with energy and musical ideas. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dichotomie (2000) offered Cheng a vivid opportunity to contrast the vibrant and percussive writing of the first movement with the more supple and graceful second. Olivier Messiaen’s Les sons impalpables du rêve (1929) was Cheng’s least successful interpretation, over-pedaled and missing the piece’s overall sense of architecture.

The highpoint of the recital came in the form of Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance (2010), a wistful and heart-stopping piece written by the British composer to evoke thoughts and memories occasioned by the death of his wife. While capturing abrupt shifts in mood and tone, the piece returns again and again to a tender, lyrical melody to haunting effect. Cheng captured the poignant beauty and delved into the emotional depths of the piece, which ends by returning to its central melody and breaking off abruptly in mid-thought—the most moving moment of a rich musical evening.