Continuum: Angela Cheng set to perform Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin on March 15 concert for Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation

During her teen years, Angela Cheng was expected by her family to prepare for a career as a doctor. Even as a piano major, she took pre-med electives in chemistry and calculus but Cheng also realized, as she recalls in an interview with The Utah Review, “I would have been a miserable doctor.”

Her path to becoming an internationally known pianist who also is on the faculty of one of America’s most respected music schools started in Hong Kong when, at the age of three-and-a-half in a family that cherished music, she was assigned to study piano.

On Friday (March 15, 7:30 p.m.), Cheng will perform works by Haydn, Beethoven and Chopin in a concert for the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, in the Jeanné Wagner Theater of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. 

Angela Cheng

Cheng is a familiar figure in the Bachauer family. A Bachauer Laureate, she also has served on the jury for the competition, the last time being in 2018, when Changyong Shin won the gold medal in the International Artists category. Cheng won the gold medal at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition and was the first Canadian to win the Montreal International Piano Competition. She and her husband Alvin Chow are on the Oberlin Conservatory of Music faculty, 

Chang’s musical roots took hold generations ago. Her maternal grandfather, who had spent some of his teen years in California, returned to China to start a business manufacturing violins, which exists to this day. Cheng’s first teachers were her aunts and her mother but when the family moved to Edmonton in Canada, Cheng, who was 11 at the time, found that playing piano helped her cope with her new surroundings. “It really frustrated me at the time and I was not doing well in school because I was just starting to learn English,” she said, adding, that she had no aunts close by to be her piano teacher.

Her musical fortunes emerged in her teens, when she met a couple who played violin and piano, respectively, and ran a small conservatory for students. Cheng was invited to play chamber music in a trio at the school, where she practiced every weekend. Her father had died during her childhood so her uncle expected Cheng, as the older sibling, to shoulder more responsibility and to study for a career, such as a doctor, which would provide well.

Nevertheless, locals in Edmonton noticed her blossoming piano skills. When she was 19 in 1979, Anne Burrows, a local philanthropist, was so taken by Cheng’s musicianship that she established a music foundation to support her and other local musicians to pursue their studies. Burrows orchestrated bake sales, raffles and bingo nights to raise funds so that Cheng could attend Juilliard in New York City. In a 2004 feature published in the Edmonton Journal, Burrows said, “One of the reasons I was so enthusiastic about Angela was not just her playing but her character seemed to me just wonderful.” 

Angela Cheng

At the time, Cheng said that she had never imagined going to a school such as Juilliard, which she had heard of for the first time in the 1970s. “It was a culture shock for me to go from Edmonton to New York and it was an eye-popping experience to see just how many concerts were always happening.”

After Juilliard, Cheng went to another top-tier music school: Indiana University, where she studied with Menahem Pressler, who was the cofounder of the Beaux Arts Trio. Pressler’s students were known for taking the top prizes in many of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions and many, like Cheng, are on the faculties in the most respected music schools around the world. “Studying with him changed my life,” Cheng said. “He was like a father to me. His devotion and passion were unforgettable.” Pressler, who continued to perform well into his nineties, died last year at the age of 99.

Cheng’s repertoire is highly influenced by the masters of the Classical and Romantic eras and while she enjoys playing and teaching Bach, she seldom performs the Baroque master’s works in public. Cheng explained that he left so little direction in tempi and articulation, for instance, and thus differences in interpretation are much wider than in a Mozart piano concerto, for example. She also has performed music by contemporary composers including Joan Tower, John Corigliano and Alexina Louie.

For her Bachauer program, she has selected piano sonatas from the later periods of Haydn and Beethoven, and has arranged her offerings to highlight the tonal connections between the works.   The opener is Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50, which was the first of the final three piano sonatas the composer wrote, when he was in his mid-sixties. “I fell in love with this work many years ago, especially because of its incredibly gorgeous slow movement, along with his famous sense of humor and emotional expression. It really makes for a nice opener,” Cheng explained. 

Composed in 1822, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, op. 110, was the next to last of the 32 sonatas he wrote for the keyboard. The work’s epic sense of narrative is evident, given that the composer also was in the midst of composing his Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis

In these last piano sonatas, Beethoven experimented with structure, shifting the greatest displays of climax sensations to the final movements of these pieces. For example, the last movement of the sonata Cheng will perform includes an arioso dolente and a formidable fugue. Works like Opus 110 took a full century before audiences accepted them with the same enthusiasm and appreciation they had done with Beethoven’s other famous works.

Cheng speaks eloquently about the place this sonata holds in her heart: “At this point, he was completely deaf and one could have understood if he would have been deeply bitter because being a musician or composer and not be able to hear must have been despairing and frustrating. But, then there is this first movement with its moving and uplifting ending that warms my heart that someone experiencing such difficulties could be so positive.” Likewise, she sees the final movement in a similar context, where while there are expressions that might reflect deep suffering and complete exhaustion, Beethoven nevertheless resolves to break through the wall to be in touch with the joy and beauty that performers and listeners experience when listening to this sonata. 

Cheng’s second half is devoted to three of Chopin’s most beloved gems:Nocturne in D-flat Major, op. 27, no. 2; Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major, op. 61 and Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, op. 23. The outer works of this trio were composed when Chopin was in his mid-twenties, while the Polonaise-Fantasie was published when he was 37, just two years before he died.

For tickets and more information, see the Bachauer website

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