Bryan Cheng lets the emotion of Elgar flow through

Bryan Cheng. Photo: Nikolaj Lund

The blossoming solo career of Ottawa’s Bryan Cheng is about to get a hometown boost.

He will make his main stage series debut with the National Arts Centre Orchestra on Jan. 29 performing the famous Elgar Cello Concerto.

This isn’t his first time performing in the NAC. That happened in 2008 when he was about 10 years old.

But, his fans and friends say, his main stage appearance is overdue. After all the young man just won the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 competition grand prize which means he’ll be performing in concert withthis young musician will have the opportunity to perform with the MSO conducted by Matthias Pintscher.

For Cheng, “It’s heartwarming to see all the support. Everyone is excited but I feel they have been more impatient than me.”

This concert came about after Cheng gave a private performance of the Elgar concerto for NACO music director Alexander Shelley this past April.

“That was my first meeting with him. After that he was really excited about that meeting. It snowballed into him wanting me in the subscription series.”

It is always a great thing when an Ottawa performer hits the main stage in Southam Hall.

As for his project with his sister, the talented pianist Silvie Cheng, the Cheng2Duo will be “making our orchestral debut together doing the Beethoven Triple in a few weeks in Halifax with Symphony Nova Scotia” with Mark Lee on violin. “Maybe we’ll do it in Ottawa…”

The choice of the Elgar for the concert Jan 31 and Feb. 1, conducted by Peter Oundjian, was the NAC’s.

“I was talking with Alexander afterwards and he was saying that he was disappointed he wasn’t conducting because the Elgar is one of his favourite pieces for cello,” Cheng said. Shelley is a cellist as well as a conductor.

For Cheng, the Elgar is an important work that he has played a few times in concert.

“It’s an historical artifact almost. Think about the background of the work. Elgar wrote it at the end of the First World War after he had lost so many friends and colleagues. He was also going through personal struggles at the time.”

All of this emotion combines and out of that emerges an extremely heartfelt piece, Cheng said.

“Each note has so much in it. It’s not all tragic. It is also full of nostalgia for a more innocent time. There is so much to say with this piece which is why I love it.”

His last performance of it was last year with the Niagara Symphony. He will play it again this season in Panama with the national symphony. Depending on when he has played a piece it can take anywhere from a day to refresh the work to a week to get it back. But it’s generally there in his head, he said.

“I grew up listening to many different recordings but the one by Jacqueline du Pré is thought of as the interpretation.

“Luckily I have had the space to develop my own interpretation of the work, taking my own life experiences and infusing them into the work.

“I feel that for every musician — in whatever piece they play — how their life develops influences the interpretation of a piece. Everyone has their hardships and struggles and ultimately it’s how you overcome them that forms the life lesson. That is another theme of the Elgar as well.

The path of the musician is not the easiest. It can be lonely. Cheng says he has found a sanctuary in his new home base of Berlin, Germany.

“I try to be there as much as possible now. I have developed a wonderful community of friends there. I feel very comfortable and so I try to be there as much as possible.”

One of his life lessons was the loss of his cello teacher Yuli Turovsky in 2013 to complications from Parkinson’s.

Cheng does acknowledge the impact of the loss. In the Elgar concerto, the composer is mourning his own friends.

“It’s interesting that sometimes the greatest pain that he shows in the piece is not through extroverted displays, but it is in the most tender and vulnerable sections. I try to mine these sections. The third movement in particular is so full of longing and heartbreak and fragility. Then in fourth movement Elgar overcomes the struggle.”

Because the piece is emotionally demanding it is also physically demanding, Cheng said.

“The few times I have played it, it becomes quite draining at the end because I put everything I have into it. The last few minutes of the whole concerto are some of the most intense. It is a physical, emotional and spiritual endeavour.” After such a concert, Cheng will often eat a filling meal. “I love a good steak or a hefty burger.

Turovsky would say to Cheng that “You should treat every performance as if it’s your very last. Play it as if you are going to die the next day and show that. I very much take that to heart every time I perform and especially with Elgar.

“If we as interpreters treat the piece with such respect then the message of the composer can come through.”

This is a busy winter and spring for Cheng. He’s doing some chamber music projects this year in Belgium and Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia where he’ll be at the Trans-Siberian Festival started by the Russian violinist Vadim Repin.

He’ll also be touring in Canada with Silvie.

The Cheng2Duo is celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven with a marathon of his five piano-cello sonatas. They have also commissioned three works inspired by these pieces from two Canadians (Dinuk Wijeratne and Samy Moussa) and one American (Paul Wiancko) for the project called Ludwig and Beyond.

NAC Orchestra features Bryan Cheng
Conducted by Peter Oundjian
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Jan. 29 and 30 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.