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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | A Jumbled Program Prevents Flight At Recital With Angela Cheng And Alvin Chow

By John Terauds on August 1, 2018

Husband and wife piano duo Angela Cheng Alvin Chow pose at Walter Hall. (Photo: John Terauds)
Husband and wife piano duo Angela Cheng Alvin Chow pose on stage at Walter Hall. (Photo: John Terauds)

Toronto Summer Music Festival: Angela Cheng with Alvin Chow (pianists) at Walter Hall. July 31, 2018.

As it hurtles towards its close at the end of the week, the Toronto Summer Music Festival has again proven itself to be a fine purveyor of thoughtful programming. So much so that when a concert doesn’t work out as well as it could, it stands out in stark contrast.

Tuesday evening’s recital at Walter Hall did not have a title. Instead, it had a name: Angela Cheng — one of Canada’s most respected solo and collaborative pianists. But only half of the concert belonged to her alone.

In fact, the first half, featuring Cheng by herself, seemed like a different recital from the second half, when she was joined by her pianist-husband, Alvin Chow, an American with long professorial ties to the Oberlin Conservatory.

The content between the two halves was different, as well. For her solo turn, Cheng dived into the great barrel of virtuoso piano chestnuts, emerging with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Op. 110 Sonata in A-flat Major and Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor.

Unfortunately, Cheng failed to deliver compelling interpretations of either work. The Beethoven Sonata is a very difficult piece to bring across coherently. It is effective as a sort of palate cleanser in the middle of a program of demanding music, but it is a stubborn beast with which to open a concert.

Cheng’s playing failed to compel. Her phrasing was uneven, and the piece lost momentum time after time. Just because the music slows down doesn’t mean that it can’t continue to carry a sense of tension to compel the listener to wait for the next note or chord. The overall effect was grey and leaden.

The Chopin Ballade suffered a similar fate, despite the piece’s florid, virtuosic gestures. The main culprit was Cheng’s failure to maintain any suspense in the music. In quieter passages, she allowed the musical line to go limp.

I kept getting the impression that Cheng and her piano, a New York Steinway well-worn by years of duty at the Faculty of Music, were not getting along particularly well.

In the duet and duo portion of the evening, Cheng and Chow turned to the colourful French repertoire of the early 20th-century for their pieces, and the result improved markedly.

Husband and wife began with Claude Debussy’s charming Petite Suite, rendered capably. The evening’s highlight was the rollicking tomfoolery of Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche. The duo pianists were not only technically perfect in this challenging piece, but they brought out their playful sides, as well.

The concert closed with the two-piano version of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse. It is a mesmerizingly dark take on the gilded ballrooms of the century before, and the duo played it well. All that was missing was a more accentuated sense of climax at the end.

The thrilled audience demanded an encore. Cheng and Chow obliged with a pleasant but bland reading of the “Berceuse” from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite.

Had the entire recital been devoted to the French duo repertoire (with perhaps a bit of Russian music thrown in), it would have been quite an electric evening. But the muddled programming contributed to a muddled result.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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