By TIMOTHY MANGAN
Pianist Gloria Cheng will be driving down the freeway (we’re guessing the 5) from her home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington next week to take part in the Pacific Symphony’s second and final “Sonic Kitchen” concert of the season. Cheng is one of the foremost contemporary music pianists in the world — Pierre Boulez once faxed her a piece in the middle of the night; she’s won a Grammy — and she’s being brought in to perform in a demanding program of new music which will include pieces by Frederic Rzewski, Philip Glass, George Crumb and others.
The concert is a musical supplement to the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art’s “Art as Protest,” an exhibit featuring a provocative array of visual artworks that aim to “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.” Given the times, it is inevitably political.
To which music can quite naturally contribute, Cheng said by phone recently.
“So much music is political, whether the message is overt or not,” she said. “I mean even a Brahms symphony is political. I’m reminded of something that my husband said. My husband’s not a musician, and he really dislikes a lot of 19th century orchestral repertoire. Because he hears militarism in it, he hears class conflict in it.
“And I said, ‘Really, you hear all that?’ And he enlightened me to that; it’s absolutely there. It is. Listen to a Tchaikovsky symphony, so much is about marches and a militaristic kind of world view. And that existed, that’s there. So, I’m a musician and the politics, they’re embedded in any work of art. Sometimes you just have to delve a little deeper for it, but it’s always there.”
In the “Sonic Kitchen” concert, dubbed Cheng will play a short excerpt from Rzewski’s massive set of variations “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” based on a popular Chilean revolutionary song. She’ll play the second movement of Glass’s Trilogy Sonata, music from his opera “Satyagraha,” named for the policy of passive political resistance advocated by Gandhi. She’ll participate in a sampling from Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae” (Voice of the Whale), meant to represent environmental concerns.
And she’ll play two piano miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz whose titles explain the nature of their protest — “For Syria” and “America Never Was America to Me.” Members of the Pacific Symphony will add Michael Daugherty’s string quartet called “Sing, Sing: J. Edgar Hoover,” which includes tapes of the FBI director’s voice. Singer Carver Cossey will also appear to perform spirituals. The concert is held in the Center’s galleries. Listeners can view the exhibit before the event.
Cheng has been lately involved in less overtly political fare, her latest CD “Montage,” a collection of pieces written for her by film composers, and the documentary that was shot at the recording sessions.
“That has been the most fun little lark and offshoot of my life,” she said. “It started when Bruce Broughton (“Silverado,” “Tombstone”) delivered a piece to me, somewhat out of the blue, and it was a major piece, over 20 minutes long. And shortly after, John Williams wrote one movement for me to play as an encore for a recital at Tanglewood, in which I was making a connection between Tanglewood composers and Los Angeles, and so who embodies both of those places more than John Williams?”
With those two pieces in hand, she decided, as an Angeleno, she was well placed to find some other film composers who wanted a break from writing film music and quickly found several takers. The striking collection includes, in addition to pieces by Broughton and Williams (who added to his Tanglewood encore), music by Michael Giacchino, Don Davis, Alexandre Desplat and Randy Newman.
When she found that the composers could make it to the recording sessions (one came to her home), she started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary. “We overfunded and I made the film with the help of some wonderfully talented people” — friends and friends of friends, including the nephew of a neighbor, and co-producer and cinematographer Joey Forsyte, who just happens to be the sister of Pacific Symphony’s president John Forsyte.
The film has made the rounds at about a dozen film festivals, won some prizes and was recently aired on PBS SoCal. Cheng watched it yet again.
“I was just so excited. I’ve seen the film hundreds of times in every iteration along the way, from the totally rough assembly to what it is now. I’m kind of blind to it, but the response has been so positive and I’m somewhat overwhelmed. When it came on TV for the first time, it followed the PBS NewsHour, and I ended up bursting into tears and had my face buried in my husband’s shoulder the whole time.”
Cheng says the challenge of performing contemporary music drew her to it. Her polyglot upbringing, she feels, also had something to do with it.
“I grew up in a household where my parents were speaking Shanghai dialect to each other, Cantonese to my mother’s side of the family and Mandarin with their friends. None of which we were privileged to have a chance to learn while growing up. And so I’m accustomed to hearing languages about which I don’t understand the specifics. I learned to try to figure out what they were saying by means of their gesture, their tone of voice, their inflection, and the expressive content of what they were saying.
“I think what I do with contemporary music feels like what I’ve done all my life, is try to figure out foreign languages, without knowing them.”
There is a certain risk, of course, in performing music that’s newly minted. There’s no guarantee that Cheng will like every piece she has committed herself to perform.
“You make friends with a piece for the amount of time that you need to spend with it. When you commission, even when I tap someone whose work I really admire, and then we see the piece several months later, I may not connect with it, it may be different from what I was expecting.
“But I always put my efforts at the service of the composer. I have the greatest respect for composers, they’re my best friends, I love them. Anyone who can create something out of thin air has my everlasting admiration.”
With: Gloria Cheng, piano; Carver Cossey, vocalist; members of the Pacific Symphony
Where: Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Ana
When: 8 p.m. June 29
How much: $20
Pre-concert: The exhibit opens at 7:15; beer and wine will be available for purchase.