Recital Review

The Three "B's" - and a "P" (Vivian Cheng at St. Mary's School)

January 31, 2006 - Raleigh, NC:

Fifteen year-old pianist Vivian Cheng is already a veteran performer. Since her first local recital at age ten, she has given many more and been a guest soloist with various orchestras in North Carolina. This talented Apex, NC, resident has won numerous awards and competitions and is now attending the Juilliard School, Pre-College Division.

On Tuesday night, January 31, 2006, Cheng gave a packed audience the chance to gauge her development in a recital on the Smedes Parlor Emerging Young Artists Series at Raleigh's St. Mary's School (the series for which she had also given a recital in April, 2002). Her programs are always ambitious and this one was no exception: a major composition from each of the proverbial "three B's" with an extra "P" (Prokofiev) adding another century to her musical survey.

At age ten, Cheng already was impressing audiences and critics with her clarity and precision as well as her ability to go beyond mere mechanical reproduction of the notes. Those qualities were in full evidence here.

In Bach's English Suite No. 2 in A minor, S.807, Cheng immediately established an admirable ability to keep all the voices clear and clean, with subtle shading of the dynamics. She supplied delightfully sassy curlicues in the "Prelude," a sweetly gentle rocking in the "Allemande," jaunty perpetual motion in the two "Bourées" and a fountain-like sparkle to the "Gigue."

For Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 in C, Op. 2, No. 3, Cheng astutely acknowledged the Classical elements of this transitional work, keeping a light touch for the skittling little runs in the first movement and finding a lovely, shimmering tone for the opening of the fourth. But she also had the power for the Romantic elements, including the strongly-accented syncopated chords in the first movement and the energetic arpeggios of the third. She integrated key changes seamlessly and had a good feeling for the several open, expansive sections.

Taking on the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 2, was Cheng's most impressive feat, as this work is rarely programmed or recorded. She boldly attacked the moody first movement, forging a big sound and a turbulent pulse with cohesive control of the movement's architecture. She found appealing character in the stealthy little phrases of the third movement and brought out some lovely, bell-like chords in the fourth. Overall, Cheng seemed unfazed by the daunting challenges of this rather sprawling work, playing it with unfailing concentration and purpose.

Cheng closed her program with Prokofiev's short Etude No. 3 in C minor. Here she showed off amazingly fast finger-work in the "kitten on the keys" runs that dominate this quirky little piece.

At this point, the only thing missing is that which can come only with time: emotional depth. In the Bach, the "Sarabande" is the only movement that really calls for some emotional underpinning, a necessary contrast not really explored here. In the Beethoven, the hymn-like second movement lost some momentum and interest without the requisite heart-felt expression. For the Brahms, especially in the second movement's sad melancholy, there was little communication from the soul. Cheng also should look to developing more distinct variations of style in works by different composers and from different periods.

But all in good time, for it seems Cheng is capable of going the distance. Let's hope that St. Mary's can continue having her check in every few years to show us her latest accomplishments.

A note to St. Mary's School: With all the new money being spent to renovate the school's original buildings, maybe someone can shake loose some funding for better seating. Yes, it's not considered good form to look a gift horse in the mouth (these concerts are all free of charge), but the current set of too-small, insubstantial folding chairs keep most audience members distracted from the performances as they try to perch on them without making noises or falling over.