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‘Modern Beauty’ music series hopes to engage audience with themes of versatility

Piano professor Gloria Cheng will be performing as a part of Pittance Chamber Music’s “Modern Beauty” virtual concert series, which examines the concept of beauty through music. (Courtesy of Pittance Chamber Music)

By Emily Sweet

Nov. 5, 2020 7:32 p.m.

For pianist Gloria Cheng, modern beauty takes many forms, one of them being contemporary classical music.

“Modern Beauty,” a concert series presented virtually through Pittance Chamber Music premiered its first of three episodes Nov. 1, with the next two set to debut Sunday and Nov. 15. The performances feature Cheng, a Grammy-winning piano professor at the Herb Alpert School of Music, in addition to three other musicians from the LA Opera Orchestra. By focusing on the medley of musical styles in contemporary music, Cheng said the idea of modern beauty manifests itself in the series through the versatility of the three episodes’ pieces.

“I love the title (of) the series because beauty and modern music (are) so diverse,” Cheng said. “There are so many different kinds of beauty, and it’s sort of a reflection of our society.”

The series was initially set to premiere in April but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leading up to the recorded performances, Cheng said rehearsals with musicians and composers mostly took place in a socially distant format given the intricacy and high level of collaboration required for the repertoire.

Many of the pieces fall under the genre of contemporary music, which the artistic director of Pittance Chamber Music, Lisa Sutton, said is Cheng’s specialty. While Cheng said she feels contemporary music can fall prey to a bad reputation, she views it as a beacon for individualism as modern genres encompass a greater variety of musical elements.

[Related: Student to showcase etiquette as a moral code through music at exploratory voice festival]

For Sutton, this idea of individualism is encompassed through the theme of “Modern Beauty,” which she said is meant to reflect the combination of technical beauty and the artistry of featured musicians. With Cheng, Sutton said these elements come to life in her performances through the emotion Cheng is able to portray.

“It takes an interpreter to reveal (beauty),” Sutton said. “For me, the idea behind (‘Modern Beauty’) is this combination of the beauty that’s inherent in the music, but then (it’s) the artist that shows it to you.”


This idea of modern beauty is not foreign to Gernot Wolfgang, a Grammy-nominated composer, whose original piece will be premiering in the third episode of the series. The composition, entitled “Decisions ..” will be played by Cheng and oboist Jennifer Cullinan of the LA Opera Orchestra, and Cheng said the piece utilizes a more asymmetric sound through the use of the blues scale.

(Courtesy of Pittance Chamber Music)
Wolfgang’s composition will be performed by Cheng and Jennifer Cullinan, an oboist at the LA Opera Orchestra. (Courtesy of Pittance Chamber Music)

Wolfgang said the piece ultimately reflects the complexity of decisions and supremacy of truth, relating to the idea of modern beauty on a technical and musical level. Though the score was written specifically for Cullinan, Wolfgang said his experiences writing pieces for Cheng and collaborating with her in the past have always challenged and inspired him as a composer.

“It’s always a joy working with her because she immediately brings herself to the table – she’s not waiting for me to say which direction a piece should go,” Wolfgang said. “She has her own ideas right away.”

[Related: Professor’s concert series offers harmony in the discordant world of COVID-19]

In addition to the collaborative pieces featured in the series, Cheng is also set to play four pieces from “Garlands for Steven Stucky,” a series that has 32 total pieces. She said these pieces were written in fond memory of composer and friend Steven Stucky and being able to explore the piece in the context of “Modern Beauty” has been gratifying. For Cheng, the four “Garlands for Steven Stucky” pieces featured in “Modern Beauty” reflect the heart of the concert series.

Being able to collaborate and work with Sutton and Wolfgang as well as with the other featured musicians has been a highlight for Cheng, who said her work as a pianist is often made up of rehearsals and refining pieces by herself. Given the implications of COVID-19, she said being able to collaborate with other musicians has been more essential than ever. With “Modern Beauty,” Cheng said she hopes to impart the versatility of beauty on listeners through contemporary music.

“If a listener is open minded – if a person is open minded – that person can find beauty in just about everything,” Cheng said. “There are so many different ways of being beautiful, and I think that an open-minded listener will be able to glean that.”

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Emily Sweet
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