Ritorna vincitor! I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago. Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious) featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.
Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.
Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer. His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.
This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed. Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning. In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc. In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.
The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59). Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.
The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name. Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style. As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor. On this 50th anniversary of that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.
By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet. While there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.
The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980). The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.
As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”. Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture. Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.
Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley. It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.
During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16. More on that in future blogs. And now on to the second half of the concert.
Terry Riley’s energy belies his age. Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively. And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.
Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition. She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.
The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles. It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas. The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.
He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997). This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose. In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav. In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath. It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.
Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018). It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite. Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.
Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work. Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist. Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist. They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.
The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause. What a transcendent evening! What amazing artists!