CD Memorializes Stucky In Works By 32 Composers


Garlands for Steven Stucky. Gloria Cheng (piano), Peabody Southwell (mezzo-soprano), Carolyn Hove (oboe).
Bridge 9509. Total Time: 78:36

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – Having been the new-music adviser for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1988 to 2009, Steven Stucky  was a fixture on the L.A. contemporary music scene. So is Gloria Cheng, who made her mark as one of the city’s most skilled and adventurous pianists. Inevitably, their paths crossed many times over the years. One of Stucky’s last works was a piano sonata for Cheng, and after he died unexpectedly in 2016 from a brain tumor at age 66, she and other pianists performed six solo piano pieces from his friends in a memorial concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in April of that year. From that concert, the idea of commissioning more memorial pieces snowballed until the list grew to 32 composers.

Hence this CD, which gathers all of their contributions into one anthology (Cheng has also performed the whole collection at recitals on both coasts). All royalties are being donated to the Steven Stucky Composer Fellowship Fund, so there is no doubt that this is a labor of love.

With a lineup that spans the generations from 29-year-old Louis Chiappetta to 95-year-old William Kraft, you would expect a lot of diversity of style and language – and there is that, to be sure. Yet there are also some common devices that crop up: reliances on moody tremolos, translations of the letters in Stucky’s initials and full name into notes and motifs to be developed, references to one of Stucky’s heroes (perhaps his supreme hero), Witold Lutosławski. Often enough, the compositions end up drifting off into deep thought, as if music, as well as words, fails to convey how deep and inexplicable the loss of Stucky at such an early age was to his composer friends.

Here are a few specific impressions that immediately come to mind; space and perhaps the patience of the reader preclude going into all of the pieces in meaningful detail.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Iscrizione, which happens to be the longest piece, leads off the disc with restless, unmoored, eventually angry disbelief at the loss of his friend (they were chummy co-conspirators at the LA Phil during Salonen’s tenure there). No one else quite conveys that kind of intensity. Steven Mackey’s reminiscence A Few Things (in memory of Steve) is playful banter, one line tumbling upon another. Hannah Lash’s November offers often luscious chords moving chromatically downwards. Harold Meltzer’s Children’s Crusade tells a short story in music in just two minutes. James Matheson’s piece has an irreverently expansive title that takes nearly as long to read as the piece itself, which eventually drifts into reverie.

Gloria Cheng has played all 32 pieces in recitals. (

(For the record, the other composers besides those mentioned are: Julia Adolphe, Julian Anderson, Charles Bodman Rae, Chen Yi, Donald Crockett, Brett Dean, Fang Man, Gabriela Lena Frank, Daniel S. Godfrey, John Harbison — his 47-second Waltz is the tiniest piece — Anders Hillborg, Pierre Jalbert, Jesse Jones, David S. Lefkowitz, Magnus Lindberg, David Liptak, Colin Matthews, Eric Nathan, Joseph Phibbs, Kay Rhie, Christopher Rouse, Michael Small, Stephen Andrew Taylor, Andrew Waggoner, and Judith Weir.)

The CD is topped off by Stucky’s stark Two Holy Sonnets of Donne for mezzo-soprano, piano, and oboe, with the Sonnet X bearing the famous, sadly pertinent phrase, “Death, be not proud.” Peabody Southwell, who was the hilariously sexy Sub-Dominant character in Stucky’s satirical opera The Classical Style, is the richly ringing mezzo-sopranoand Carolyn Hove of the LA Phil contributes the soaring oboe.

The listener is hereby warned that it will take some persistence and undivided attention to get the most out of this program. The order of the pieces on the disc is different from the alphabetical order of the composers’ notes in the booklet, so you’ll have to keep flipping the pages back and forth as you listen. You will be rewarded not only by Cheng’s brilliant technique and obvious affection for the material but also by an hors d’oeuvres plate of intimate musical thoughts from a wide cross-section of today’s new-music scene.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.