L.A. Studio Legends: Gloria Cheng

Photo: Lefterisphoto.com

Award-winning pianist talks her career as a classical performer specialized in contemporary repertoire and her many collaborations with John Williams, including her solos on Munich and The Adventures of Tintin, and the recent premiere of ‘Prelude and Scherzo’ for Piano and Orchestra

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto

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Pianist Gloria Cheng belongs to the category of instrumentalists who are true favourites of John Williams to the point of being even an inspiration for the composer. One of the most acclaimed musicians of his generation and an advocate of the contemporary repertoire and new music, Gloria Cheng performed as pianist for John Williams in many film scores since the mid-2000s and has been spotlighted as soloist on such scores as Munich (2005), The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and War Horse (2011). She also performed on other Williams’ scores including The BFG, The Post, and the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

In addition to the film work, Cheng also had the unique honour of performing Williams’ rare piano compositions for the concert hall: the 4-movement Conversations for solo piano (written and dedicated to her between 2012 and 2013), and the Prelude and Scherzo for piano and orchestra, which premiered in Barcelona in 2021 with the Orquesta Sinfónica del Vallès under Marc Timón, and later for its American premiere with the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller.

John Williams and Gloria Cheng listening to a playback during the recording sessions of “Conversations” for the project MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano (2013)

A native of New Jersey, Gloria’s formative studies were under the tutelage of Isabelle Sant’Ambrogio. Prior to embarking on her musical career, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Stanford University. Her decision to pursue the piano led to a Woolley Scholarship for study in Paris and degrees in performance from UCLA and University of Southern California, where her teachers included Aube Tzerko and John Perry.

After graduating, Gloria settled on specializing in performing contemporary concert repertoire and went on to become one of the world’s leading interpreters of piano works by major composers including Gyorgy Ligeti and Pierre Boulez, and a true advocate for new music, establishing fruitful partnerships with such contemporary music icons as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Terry Riley, Thomas Adès and Steven Stucky.

As a recitalist, Gloria Cheng performed in many major American music festivals including the Ojai Music Festival (where she began her association with Pierre Boulez in 1984), Chicago Humanities Festival, William Kapell Festival, Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, Mendocino, and Chautauqua Music Festivals, and annually on the Los Angeles-based Piano Spheres series. She has premiered countless works that include Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dichotomie, John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction for two pianos, and Steven Stucky’s Piano Sonata. Partnering with composers in duo-recitals, she premiered Thomas Adès’s 2-piano Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face and Terry Riley’s Cheng Tiger Growl Roar.

Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in a performance for a “Piano Spheres” concert at the Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School in Los Angeles (Photo: Allen J. Schaben)

She has appeared as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta, and at the personal invitation of Boulez, performing Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques with him on the orchestra’s historic final concerts in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Other concerto appearances have brought her to the Louisville and Shanghai Orchestras; Indianapolis, Pasadena, Long Beach, and Pacific Symphonies.

In her home base of Los Angeles, she has been a principal artist with the Piano Spheres series, Jacaranda Music, Monday Evening Concerts, and on the L.A. Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series. She is also the winner of the Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without orchestra) Grammy Award for her 2008 recording, Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky, and Lutosławski, she was nominated a second time in 2013 for The Edge of Light: Messiaen/Saariaho.

Gloria Cheng during the performance of the “MONTAGE” recital at Zipper Hall in Los Angeles in 2013 (Photo: Lawrence Ho)

Her penchant for the contemporary repertoire got her on the radar of composers who were also working in film like Don Davis, who in 1999 had Gloria Cheng as principal keyboard for his groundbreaking post-modern score for the sci-fi epic The Matrix, in which she can be heard performing complex piano parts.

Cheng began to do more studio work as pianist and keyboardist, playing in film scores by such composers as Randy Newman, James Horner, Michael Giacchino. And in 2005, she began a fruitful association with John Williams that continues until this day.

Gloria Cheng during a film session (Photo: ScoringSessions.com)

John Williams asked Gloria to perform the heartfelt piano solo heard during the end credits of Steven Spielberg’s Munich and from that moment onward, she became one of the Maestro’s favourite pianists, joining a circle that includes such studio musicians as Randy Kerber, Ralph Grierson, Mike Lang and Chet Swiatkowski. After Munich, Gloria Cheng was featured soloists in two more films by Steven Spielberg, The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and War Horse (2011). Both scores make the pianist shine for both her brilliance in virtuosic playing and her heartfelt expressiveness in playing lyrical phrases, adding style and personality to what is written on the page.

John Williams and Gloria Cheng rehearsing a movement of “Conversations” in 2013 (Photo courtesy of Gloria Cheng)

The collaboration between Williams and Cheng isn’t limited to the film world. The pianist is one of the very few who had the honour and the privilege to perform the composer’s rare incursion of writing for the piano in a concert setting. Despite being a brilliant pianist himself and having the instrument often featured prominently as soloist in many of his film scores, Williams wrote only very few piano compositions intended for the concert hall. But in all those cases so far, he had Gloria Cheng performing them. In 2012, Cheng asked the composer to write a short piece for her to premiere at a recital in Tanglewood; Williams accepted and wrote “Phineas and Mumbett”, a 5-minute composition centered around an imaginary conversation between great jazz pianist Phineas Newborn and Elizabeth Freeman, aslo known as “Mumbett”, a resident of western Massachusetts and a former slave who sued the state of Massachusetts in 1781 for her freedom and then won. It’s a wonderfully ruminative piece, in which the composer tries to imagine a chat between “two strong personalities, one pianistic and the other most surely vocal and hymnal…”

The piece became the cornerstone of a multi-movement composition that Williams called Conversations, in which the composer kept imagining chats between jazz greats he admired as a youngster: Claude Thornhill and Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker and Miles Davis, and finally Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and “Blind Tom” (the inventor of the “stride” style of playing). It’s a unique element in John Williams’ concert repertoire, brimful of suggestions and echoes from a past close to his heart, which he evokes not so much stylistically, but more as an impressionistic recollections from the vast landscapes of his musical soul, which Cheng’s attentive, sensitive playing bring to life.

During the same time, Gloria Cheng started to envision the idea of having a series of piano solo pieces for her written by acclaimed composers mostly associated with film. In addition to Williams’ Conversations, Gloria was gifted by Bruce Broughton (the acclaimed composer of such film scores as Silverado, Young Sherlock Holmes, Tombstone) with a suite called Five Pieces for Piano. Realizing the potential, Gloria asked four other composers (Don Davis, Randy Newman, Alexandre Desplat and Michael Giacchino) to contribute new pieces, a request to which all responded with great enthusiasm. The idea became a true project called MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano, which included an album of all compositions and a documentary chronicling the recording. Gloria spearheaded the venture almost heroically and went on to produce a beautiful recording (released by independent label Harmonia Mundi) and a documentary that ended up winning awards and accolades at various film festivals and finally seizing the the 2018 Los Angeles Area Emmy Award for Independent Programming. It’s a unique venture that offers the rare occasion to experience talented composers working out of their usual environment. “Gloria has broken the mold by inviting film composers to be exactly not that, to be simply composers,” commented John Williams.

Gloria Cheng shares a jovial moment with John Williams, Randy Newman and Don Davis

A more recent collaboration with John Williams happened for the composer’s Prelude and Scherzo for piano and orchestra, which Gloria premiered first in Barcelona in June 2021 together with the Orquesta Sinfónica del Vallès conducted by Marc Timón and then performed in its US premiere in June 2022 with the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller. The piece is comprised of two contrasting movements (the Scherzo was originally written for Lang Lang, who premiered it in 2014 with Long Yu and the China Philharmonic) which both put the soloist’s skill at a great test: if the Scherzo is an almost relentless, virtuosic firework showcasing dexterity and sleight-of-hand, the Prelude returns to some of the ruminative qualities of Conversations, with a jazz-like nocturnal lyricism and harmonically rich writing.

John Williams and Gloria Cheng during the filming of MONTAGE documentary (Photo courtesy of Gloria Cheng)

In addition to being a superbly talented musician, Gloria is also a devoted teacher. She is currently on the faculty of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music where she has created classes and programs that unite performers, composers, and scholars. She is often invited to speak as an advocate for contemporary music and in 2012 served as Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

Gloria Cheng and John Williams with students of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music (ca. 2015, courtesy of Gloria Cheng)

In this conversation, Gloria talks about her career as a classical performer and her path that led to perform as pianist for film scores; she recollectes her first experience playing for John Williams on Munich, the challenges of playing the solo on Tintin and her views on the Maestro’s style when writing for piano, reflecting upon her experiences playing Conversations and the Prelude and Scherzo. Gloria was the first musician to be guest on the pages of The Legacy of John Williams back in its early days four years ago and we cannot be more happy to share this insightful conversation with all of our readers and listeners.

John Williams and Gloria Cheng after the premiere of “Conversations” at Zipper Hall in Los Angeles in 2013 (Photo: Lefterisphoto.com)

Links

Gloria Cheng Official Website: https://www.gloriachengpiano.com/

MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano documentary on Amazon Video:
https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B08VCTXDM7

Gloria Cheng on MONTAGE:
https://newmusicusa.org/nmbx/six-great-film-composers-tell-their-own-stories-in-music-for-solo-piano/

Many thanks to Gloria Cheng for her unending kindness and generosity.