From the moment she took the stage, we could understand why Rachel Cheung was the 2017 Cliburn Competition Audience Award Winner. She connected to us with her warm smile and gracious manner as she gave us introductory descriptions of the pieces we were about to hear. Her obvious desire was to put us at ease and to do everything possible to help us enjoy the music.
While she is Chinese, she possesses a French sensibility, which is characterized by delicacy and gentleness, the interplay of light and shadow, luminosity. Rachel’s repertoire (the sense of intimacy she created makes me want to call her Rachel!) transported us to Paris, mostly in the late 19th century, a time when Romanticism was waning and Impressionism and experiments in visual and audial arts were rising.
However, her first selection was from Jean-Philippe Rameau, who lived and wrote in the Baroque age most associated with German composers whose sensibility has more to do with rational order and creativity within set structures. In Rameau’s Pieces de Clavecin,” or“pieces for the harpsichord” written in 1724, he sounds more French than Bach or Handel, especially as interpreted by Cheung. She uses ritards extensively, and since performers are free to ornament Baroque pieces as they like, her use of trills and other flourishes gilded the lily beautifully. In the “Interview of the Muses,” both right and left hand play single lines; the simplicity is delightful. Since gangs of chickens populate our rural Hawaiian roads and yards, the last Rameau selection, “The Hen,” tickled our fancy. This humorous piece imitates their pecking with the repeated eighth notes by one hand or the other or both; and we hear the hen scramble off to repeat the pecking in another place, another speed, another key.
Debussy turns visual prints into impressionist works in Estampes. He is not interested in presenting us with an image that he sees; he wants to convey the feeling that he gets from the image. Cheung is right there with him; her touch is firm but light, the tones are translucent. “Pagoda” takes us to Java and their percussive instrument, the gamelan. Unlike Western music, each gamelan is not tuned to the same pitch; played together they produce a shimmery sound. The Asian musical scale of 5 notes is evoked with the use of fourths; high above us we hear tinkling like wind chimes caught in gentle eddies. From Java, Rachel took us to Debussy’s impression of Grenada Spain and its Flamenco rhythms; then in “Gardens in the Rain” we hear the constant patter of raindrops and then a build up of force with low rumbling in the bass making us think of thunder. None of these pieces is imitative; he is not trying to reproduce Javan or Spanish music or rain, but is giving us the essential flavor as he experienced it.
Gabriel Faure was Debussy’s contemporary. However, his Nocturne with its lovely melody, rippling accompaniment, contrasting middle sections and return to the first theme reminded me more of Chopin. Both the Nocturne and the Impromptu do not use more experimental scales or modern chord changes as Debussy and Faure himself used as they transitioned from the impressionist to the modern age. Rachel also gave us Faure’s student, Maurice Ravel’s Toccata; it allowed her to display her technique at its fastest and most brilliant.
While the last two composers, Cesar Franck and Frederic Chopin were not French by birth, they both moved to Paris in their early 20’s and never looked back. Their music too is imbued with a French sensibility. Rachel explained that she interprets both Franck’s Prelude, Fugue et Variation and Chopin’s 24 Preludes as descriptions of spiritual journeys. Franck’s Prelude feels like a person walking through the gallery of their own life, observing and reminiscing with nostalgia. The Fugue, a surprising choice of form harking back to the Baroque, feels ponderous and despairing at first, but is then relieved by a haunting melody; the variations end in a major chord, an unexpected note of hope.
While all of these composers mainly played organ or piano, Chopin took piano music to new heights. Rachel’s decision to play all 24 Preludes as her final selection provided the climax we all hoped for to the afternoon’s repertoire. The Preludes range in time from less than 30 seconds to several minutes; they alternate between slow and fast pieces; often they have surprising endings that are not direct descendants of the beginning section(s). A number have quite repetitive bass lines; Rachel’s interpretations were inventive, pulling out some of those phrases for unexpected emphasis. Her lyricism, flights of fancy, subtle changes in tempo and wide dynamic range kept us transfixed to the last moment.
Is Rachel really French? I could start a rumor! For an afternoon, we believed we were in Paris, uplifted by the exquisite music-making of mademoiselle Cheung.
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos: Steve Roby
For more info on Rachel Cheung, please visit her website.