Up Close and Personal: Conversation with Gloria Cheng

Gloria Cheng
Gloria Cheng (Photo by Lefteris Padavos)

American pianist Gloria Cheng is one of the world’s leading instrumentalist who crossed musical boundaries and brought her own art to a wide variety of genres and styles. Over the years she specialized in contemporary classical repertoire and championed the music of a wide variety of composers who wrote pieces specifically for her, including John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Gavin Bryars, John Harbison, Joan Huang, William Kraft, Veronika Krausas, Magnus Lindberg, Terry Riley and Steven Stucky, among many others.

Gloria Cheng also works in the Los Angeles music scene as one of the most-requested session players for film music recordings. She performed virtuoso parts on the score for The Matrix (1999), composed by Don Davis. Then in 2005 she caught the attention of John Williams, when the composer asked her to perform a piano solo part for the end credits piece on the score of Steven Spielberg’s Munich. In 2011, Williams again gave Cheng a prominent part, a virtuosic solo piano on the score for The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn in the track called “Snowy’s Theme”:

In 2014, Gloria Cheng launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce a recording dedicated to piano music of contemporary film composers she particularly admires. After reaching the goal, the recording was produced and then released in 2015 by record label Harmonia Mundi: MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano is a beautiful collection of solo piano compositions by Bruce Broughton, Don Davis, Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman and John Williams. The result is a very precious look at the composers’ more intimate and personal voice. The piano is an instrument where the composer doesn’t have any corner to hide behind, other than being probably the most “frightening” when it comes to confront the great music literature of the past.

A film documentary about the recording session was produced by Breakwater Studios in conjuction with the album. It was presented in several film festivals around the United States and then, in 2018, the documentary won the LA Area Emmy Award for Best Independent Programming. You can watch the full documentary on demand on Vimeo:

John Williams wrote a piece called “Conversations”, a 4-movement suite of particular character and expression centered around imaginary dialogues between some great jazz musicians from his youth. It’s a reminiscence of his early years as a jazzman, but revived with the wisdom of the elderly man. He wrote it intermittently between several film commissions, adding movements and offering them to Cheng as he went through the composition process. The pianist and the composer collaborated closely to finesse and rehearse the piece until both of them were happy with the final result, as captured on the recording.

The 4-movement piano suite “Conversations”, composed by John Williams for Gloria Cheng

I met with Gloria Cheng last year in Boston where she was doing a tour to present the documentary. We then had some conversations (excuse the pun) via email about how the MONTAGE project was born, how she worked with Maestro Williams and her deep commitment to modern music.

Gloria Cheng and John Williams

Let’s start with the genesis of MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano CD. How the project was conceived and how it developed?

Gloria Cheng: The project was born when Bruce Broughton (Silverado, Young Sherlock Holmes) presented me with his Five Pieces for Piano, which is a fabulous, strikingly “pianistic” set of pieces. Bruce is an excellent pianist himself, and writes brilliantly for the instrument; his pieces should find wide circulation amongst other pianists. Then John Williams wrote a short piece, Phineas and Mumbette, as the first in his set called “Conversations,” for me to perform at Tanglewood. With Bruce and John’s pieces in hand, it seemed natural to invite a few other composers to do the same thing. I simply thought of composers whose film music I most admired, and I’m honored that Don Davis (The Matrix trilogy), Alexandre Desplat (Argo, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Michael Giacchino (Up, Ratatouille), and Randy Newman (Toy Story, Monsters Inc.) all so generously agreed to compose piano pieces and also to participate in the film.

Every composer has a very distinct and singular voice. Each of them explored a very different side of both piano writing in general and your style of playing, which is truly radiant and colourful. What is for you that makes each of these pieces unique and dear for you?

GC: These composers are great masters with an enormous range of experience and indelible, distinct artistic personalities. What I believe emerges in their solo piano music is a revelation of how each of them faces the basic yet formidable challenge of choosing good notes. As Michael Giacchino says in the documentary, “There’s no hiding behind the string section or the brass…you do worry more about every single note.” In the documentary film component of the MONTAGE project, each composer, one by one, speaks of the great challenge posed by writing for the piano.

What were the most difficult/challenging pieces to learn and practice?

GC: Playing music is never easy, and often the least technically challenging piece can be the most difficult to convey. Technically, Don Davis’ Surface Tension, presented the greatest number of technical challenges, Bruce Broughton’s fast movements in his Five Pieces required a lot of practice (though they always belied the touch of a pianist-composer), and so did John Williams’ stride-based final movement of “Conversations,” Strays, Duke…and Blind Tom. The pieces by Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, and Randy Newman, posed fewer technical difficulties, but posed equally confounding decisions about what sort of touch, what kind of sound quality, how to deliver the phrases, how to reveal the meanings between the notes. I spent just about equal amounts of time preparing all the pieces, regardless of technical difficulty.

Gloria Cheng with (from left to right) John Williams, Randy Newman and Don Davis

All the pieces show the intimate side of each composer. Each one of them paints a very different picture and tells a specific story, but none of the pieces are illustrative nor “filmic” in nature. Do you think you succeeded in bringing out the “private” side of each composer involved?

GC: It is interesting to note, from the titles and CD liner notes that the composers wrote, that all of them except for Bruce Broughton had an extra-musical narrative or inspiration in mind. I believe that they did bring a different part of themselves to these pieces than they would to a film score or even a chamber music composition, certainly more intimate, and I hope that I portrayed their inner thoughts with some degree of accuracy. 

The project also included a lovely film documentary about the recording of the album. The film is being presented throughout film festivals in the US and it also received awards. Do you see both the album and the film as part of one single effort?

GC: The film is largely about the recording sessions for the CD, mixed with interviews of each composer so yes, both were conceived to go together. But because the record label (harmonia mundi USA) doesn’t produce movies and the movie producer (Breakwater Studios) doesn’t produce CDs, the CD and the film have taken on somewhat separate lives. The film has been very successful at festivals, but I’ve found it even more gratifying to tour the project as a film screening followed by me performing the pieces live.

John Williams’ “Conversations” is such a special piece and it sounds like nothing else he wrote. His concert music is often written for specific soloists in mind and this piece is no exception, it’s perfectly tailored to you and your playing style. At the same time, it almost sounds like an intimate personal journey through his youth love of jazz music and jazz musicians altogether, but filtered through the eyes of the man he is now. What are your own feelings and impressions about “Conversations”?

GC: I’m so grateful that John took time out from his extraordinarily busy schedule to sit down and compose the four movements that comprise his “Conversations.” We communicated a great deal while he was composing the piece, and I’ve kept all of the versions that he ended up revising along the way. It was a rare glimpse into his compositional process to take note of the changes that he made until arriving at the final version. Fedex was at my door many times during the creation of his piece! The virtuosity with which he taps into such heterogenous jazz styles is almost dizzying, and for me as a classically trained, hopelessly-unable-to-improvise pianist, they provided a welcome stretch for me. I’ve always worshipped jazz pianists, and stride playing in particular, so I was delighted that he gave me some of that rhetoric to put under my fingers.

You played piano solo parts in several of his film scores. I particularly love “Snowy’s Theme” from The Adventures of Tintin–it’s almost a miniature Allegro from the Piano Concerto he still has to write. You also performed beautiful lyrical solos in scores like Munich and War Horse. Do you think Mr. Williams will ever write a full out Piano Concerto, perhaps with you as the dedicatee?

GC: John has written a Scherzo for Lang Lang, and I would love to get my hands on it. The idea of him writing a Piano Concerto with me as the dedicatee would of course be a dream come true.

John Williams and Gloria Cheng during the recording sessions of MONTAGE

MONTAGE also shows how many great composers chose to work in the film industry. Do you think film music helped reinvigorate symphonic/orchestral music alive and perhaps bring it closer to a broad audience?

GC: Our greatest film composers are that because they are great composers, period. And yes, all the time I encounter young people who were introduced to orchestral music via the broadly popular films scored by these six MONTAGE composers. Many young composers today became composers having been inspired by the music they heard in the movies. And the combination of visual storytelling with music allows the widest swath of general audiences to appreciate styles and sounds that they might find more difficult to process when isolated in a concert setting. And that in turn gives film composers great license to explore and experiment with more classical avant-garde techniques, and to create new ones which then cycle back into the classical new music ecosystem.

You’re an exceptional concert pianist with a special relationship with the contemporary repertoire. You performed pieces by some of the greatest composers of the 20th century like Gyorgy Ligeti, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen. You are also very close to the music of composers like John Adams, Steven Stucky and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Many of them also wrote pieces specifically for you. What can you tell us about your experience of working with these wonderful composers?

GC: I have infinite respect for composers, and I love collaborating with them, learning from their deep insights into music, learning more about them through their own music. My involvement with new music has led me to so many magical musical worlds that I could never otherwise have imagined. Each is a private world conceived from a rich personal history, philosophy, and culture; each traces indefinable aspects of human experience; each invites a response from deep within me. Every composer’s musical language is personal and unique; the best are eloquent, persuasive, astonishing, ingenious. Grasping them requires openness, respect, humility, and a lot of patience. My world has grown bigger and more interesting from every composer I have committed time to. Some of their pieces become lifelong loves that grow and evolve over time, some become great friends, some we want never to revisit. But the more openness we can show in the face of a new encounter, the richer our lives become. I like this as a way to live my life.

A very heartfelt thank you to Gloria Cheng for the time she gave for this interview and for the permission of using pictures.

Purchase MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano CD album HERE.

This conversation was held in 2017. In the meantime, MONTAGE went to win the LA Area Emmy Award for Best Independent Programming, so it seems the life of this project is still ongoing. Gloria Cheng is one of the best examples of how the music of John Williams inspires musicians and performers around the world. Music is something that needs to be kept alive by talented people who commit themselves to perform it and bring it to new and wider audiences. Gloria Cheng continues to show a deep, sincere commitment to the art and craft of musicmaking.

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