Music review: Gloria Cheng and Piano Spheres at Zipper Hall

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Piano Spheres, one of the Los Angeles classical music landscape’s more surprising and also inspiring success stories, began humbly 16 years ago, and the seeds have fully flowered. Launched at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church by the late, legendary Leonard Stein, pianist, pedagogue and assistant/direct link to Arnold Schoenberg, the series was designed to feature himself and a handful of gifted students, dealing with mostly contemporary piano repertoire.

All these seasons later, Piano Spheres is an ongoing boon to both the piano and contemporary music concerns in town, and to the West Coast.

At Tuesday night’s season opener, in the more acoustically embracing Zipper Hall, some well-deserved internal celebration was in order -- for the main attraction of this year’s recital by famed contemporary music interpreter Gloria Cheng was a clear and captivating world premiere performance of John Harbison’s entrancing but also coolly measured “Leonard Stein Anagrams.”

True to Harbison’s innate spirit of invention, compositional command, and dogma-free musical range, he has concocted something fascinating, a diverse and connective set of 13 miniatures (the last titled “12a,” in deference to the “13”-phobic Stein and Schoenberg). Each piece bears a title based on anagrams of Stein’s name, including “Note slid near,” “L.A. trend: noise” (a garrulous and exciting blast of piano sound) and “Tender as a lion,” a suitable impression of the imposing yet affable Stein.


Stylistically, we get hints of the influence of Schoenberg — and his miniature-minded pupil Webern — and also Satie (especially in “Rise tone, lad!”), along with revealing doses of Harbison, Stein himself, and detectable elements of Cheng’s musical persona.

Harbison’s work, in fact, was one of two notable world premieres here, alongside Andrew Waggoner’s “La Folie (Fantasme on a Ground),” a more maximal organism. This is music at once viscerally charged and intellectually curious — curious as in strangely compelling and actively, restlessly searching. The piece morphs and folds over itself, unveiling a series of ideas, interests and aspects of what the composer calls the “continuous variation.” It’s a wild ride, in other words, but with self-assurance and dignity beneath the sometimes crazed and Messiaenic surfaces.

Cheng tends to tap into relevant “gestalt,” to borrow her term. At last year’s Piano Spheres recital, she performed Lutoslawski, Steven Stucky and Esa-Pekka Salonen, music featured on a CD that garnered a Grammy in February. This year’s recital model followed a coherent theme and a broad sweep through modern music, involving pieces written in memoriam and with echoes of music’s past.

She began, logically, with pieces from Shostakovich’s Bach-inspired Preludes and Fugues, middle-distance modernism looking back and leaning forward. Kaija Saariaho’s Prelude and Ballade revel in cloudy swirls of harmonic texture, and Thomas Adès’ 1992 “Darkness Visible” uses tremolo effects and Dowland deconstruction to haunting, lamenting ends (Adès was in-house, incidentally). Luigi Nono’s “…sofferte onde serene…”, the program’s most abstract moment, surreally blends live piano with taped, ghostly echoes.

For a finale, the ever-impressive Calder Quartet joined Cheng for Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, written —slowly — in memory of his late mother. The piece works its way through passages of tension and layering to the mesmeric finale. Here, strings dispense echoes of previous themes over the pianist’s sweet, repetitive music box-like patterns, playing like a life passing before our ears, wistfully.

-- Josef Woodard