She is a distinctive soloist — one with an ability to get under the skin of a particular piece of music and bring her individualism to bear on it — while staying true to the emotional center.
As part of Boston Court's Piano Spheres series, Cheng will essay selections from her new Harmonia Mundi release, “The Edge of Light,” on Feb. 15. The album imaginatively juxtaposes the early piano preludes of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and three works by the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (born 1952).
From her home in Los Angeles, Cheng is clear about what draws her to Messiaen's piano music, which is reminiscent of Debussy. “It has color, serendipity and an inherent sense of the dance,” she stresses, “but also ecstasy and bliss. I feel like that's a touchstone for him.”
The Messiaen preludes, though intimate and loaded with Impressionist color, often intimate passionate undercurrents. Saariaho's “Prelude” (2006) outright roils with tempestuous emotional whirlwinds. Her “Ballade” (2005), though more languid, is similarly tense. Both receive their recorded premieres on the album. The well-regarded Calder Quartet ratchets up the complexity and angst on “Je sens un deuxiéme coeur” (2003). Members of the group will share the stage with Cheng at Boston Court for their local debut of the album's material.
“The Edge of Light” is a triumph of program and performance, and has the added prestige of an astute liner note essay by renaissance musician and impresario Peter Sellars. Cheng does not take the recording process lightly, nor does she do it often. “It's not easy to get a recording project of this nature up and running,” she confesses. “It really did take a village — literally dozens of people helped and contributed money. I'm crazy grateful.”
Messiaen's music is not new to Cheng. Her first concerto performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta in 1998, was Messiaen's “Oiseaux exotiques” and “Couleurs de la Cíte céleste.” In 1995 she recorded an album of Messiaen's piano music for Koch. But it was her private lesson in Paris with pianist Yvonne Loriod — the composer's widow — that gave Cheng an inside view of the music.
“That was a transformative experience,” Cheng declares. “I was pretty much on the same page as she was but there were some technical issues in the music that she showed me how to handle.”
As for Kaija Saariaho, whom Cheng had casually encountered with the L.A. Philharmonic, the pianist was struck by the composer's “raging passion. And the color that she infuses into her piano works. I think that stems from her work with electronics: high harmonics and up into the overtone series.”
It's tempting to see Cheng as a woman on a mission regarding new music. “No, I just feel that so much has already been said about the traditional canon,” she says. “After 1945, it was pretty much ‘anything goes'; the contemporary composers reinvented music out of thin air, and each one emerged as an individual. They had passionate zeal and felt a moral imperative to interpret what had happened. If your city was bombed, if your family was slaughtered, you wouldn't be writing like Johann Strauss either.”
Where: Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: Friday, Feb. 15, 8 p.m. Tickets $25; $20 for seniors
Info: (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.com
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.