Chamberfest: Home is where the heart is for Silvie and Bryan Cheng

Silvie and Bryan Cheng. Photo: Uwe Arens

Ottawa’s Silvie and Bryan Cheng are back home this week performing in a concert that really showcases some of the best homegrown classical talent this city can showcase.

Also on the bill are Angela Hewitt and the NAC Orchestra’s concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki.

For the Chengs an Ottawa homecoming is always important.

“You feel extra Canadian once you leave Canada. I’m living in New York now and Bryan is in Berlin and we can both attest to that,” Silvie said over the phone from New Hampshire where the two were in residence at the Avaloch Farm Music Institute where they were working on new repertoire and practicing for the Chamberfest concert on Aug. 3.

“Our parents live here and we have a sense of wanting to give back to the community that raised you. We feel so lucky to play at home and when we do all of our friends from over the years come out and support us. You feel they have grown with you and really know you,” she said.

The brother and sister have played with Kawasaki before in a trio but they haven’t performed on the same bill as Hewitt.

“She has invited us to play in her festival in Trasimeno, Italy, in 2014,” Silvie said. “She has been a mentor of ours and of mine for many years. This concert will be fun.”

One of the focuses of the program is music by Clara Schumann, whose 200th birthday is this year, which Hewitt and Kawasaki will play. One of the reasons for the performance of the composer’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22. It is to be recorded for a CD produced by NACO, Silvie said.

The Chengs won’t play any Clara Schumann but they will play Robert Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston (Folk Pieces), Op. 102.

The evening will feature all four players in a surprise ending, Silvie said.

“We aren’t telling anyone about that. No one will know what it is until it happens.”

For Silvie Cheng, Hewitt has been a true mentor.

“I first met her when I was nine years old. We have a picture from that night at a recital of hers when she played in Ottawa.

“I was a nine year old fan girl in line trying to get an autograph. I bought a CD and I was really excited to meet her in person and I probably said I played the piano. Somewhere along the line I got to play for her, but I don’t remember how that happened.

“Ever since I have played for her every other year basically. At this point it feels like a true friendship.”

Hewitt and Cheng get together when Hewitt comes through New York. And both Chengs have gone to her home and played with her.

“She has been a musical mentor and an artistic guide throughout our lives for almost 20 years now,” Silvie said.

The Chengs credit Hewitt with being very giving of herself to the next generation of musicians through masterclasses and other educational events.

“She’s not just focussed on whatever she is doing around the world and I think that is especially inspiring,” Silvie said.

Bryan said he is interested to hear music by Clara Schumann in the concert. He noted that work by female composers such as Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn is becoming more present in concert programs.

“In the 19th century women composers weren’t recognized. Now we live in a time when that is hopefully changing,” he said.

In their programming, Cheng2Duo like to play works that not everyone knows.

At Chamberfest they’ll perform a rarely heard cello-piano sonata by Francis Poulenc.

“A lot of people, even those who love the cello-piano repertoire have probably not heard Poulenc sonata in a concert,” Silvie said.

“When the hear it they go ‘Wow’. There are composers we know about through certain works so it’s fun for us to see that moment of discovery in an audience.”

There is a lot of cello-piano repertoire out there, Bryan said, “but it’s mostly hidden beneath the tip of the iceberg. People tend to play the same pieces.

“There are so many masterful compositions that for some reason aren’t played very often. Silvie and I often just go on hour-long YouTube wormholes, looking for recordings.”

The Chengs are also active commissioners of new repertoire.

“It’s a balance we have had through our lives,” Silvie said.

Bryan says that the duo will continuing with a new project that relates to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. They will play a program of the composer’s five piano-cello sonatas.

“Along with that we are commissioning three Canadian composers to write pieces inspired by the sonatas,” he said. Two of the composers are Canadians Samy Moussa and Dinuk Wijeratne. The latter’s music is being played at Chamberfest this summer. The third composer is the American Paul Wiancko.

The three new compositions have been inspired by middle period sonatas so the Cheng² Duo program will begin with the first sonata and then alternate the new works with the Beethoven sonatas and close with the final Beethoven sonata. It sounds like a marathon concert.

“You can hear how his music continues to inspire people writing today,” Silvie said.

This program will premiere in the summer of 2020. The Chengs expect to get the finished compositions in February.

They can afford these commissions through a combination of their own earnings and support from granting agencies and generous individual donors to their New Music Fund.

“Today we are doing enough concerts to sustain ourselves and to look forward to the future projects, we are contemplating.”

The grants help make what they do possible and allow them to dream bigger.

Bryan also benefits from the Canada Council instrument bank. He plays the 1696 ‘Bonjour’ Stradivarius cello which he never lets out of his sight.

Brother and sister say they have no problem making choices of repertoire to play.

“Thankfully, over the years, we have developed similar tastes in music so we rarely disagree musically and artistically,” Bryan said, adding “or we are very good at convincing each other.”

Compromise doesn’t make a lot of sense for a duo, Silvie said.

“We tell each other our opinions and whoever is the most convincing wins.”

Or whoever is the least stubborn, Bryan adds.

Silvie is older and that “used to work when he was 10, but Bryan is now his own formed person.”

Certainly seems to be after all he now lives on his own in Berlin.

“I moved to Berlin mostly because of my teacher. Jens Peter Maintz is one of most sought after professors of cello in the world. Because of that the level in his studio is incredibly high. It has been an inspiring environment to be immersed in.”

Bryan has been in Berlin 3 1/2 years now. He said Berlin is one of few, if not the only place that can offer that kind of education.

Silvie is based in New York City. She obtained her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the Manhattan School of Music.

“Being there so long, doors were open to me,” she said. Behind one of those doors was a role as a distance learning teacher at the Manhattan School in a program that essentially started with Pinchas Zukerman. Today she has students across North America and overseas.

That work has kept her in New York and that connection with younger musicians is an important part of what the Chengs do.

The duo has just released the last CD in a trio of recordings. Russian Legends is a double CD featuring music by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Glazunov, Arensky and Scriabin.

The Russian record is important, Bryan said. It flows from his time with the late Yuli Turovsky.

“I studied with him for eight years,” Bryan said. “My parents drove me every other Sunday to Montreal for lessons. So much of my artistic expression and personality are thanks to him. This record was kind of an homage to him and his wonderful insights.

Silvie said: “He opened our eyes to the world of Russian music and to the soul of Russian music. He interacted with people like Rostropovich. He brought their influences to us. There was so much music we wanted to cover that it ended up being a double CD.”

The Russian tradition has followed the Chengs, Bryan said. They have worked with Turovsky and with David Geringas, who ran through this program with them. Bryan’s current teacher is a student of Geringas who was a student of Rostropovich. It’s like a great chain of music.

“We played the Shostakovich sonata for Geringas who had played it for the composer. He told us what Shostakovich was thinking in various parts of the piece,” Silvie said.

This CD also ties back to Angela Hewitt, Silvie said.

“When we played at her festival in 2014, her recording producer Ludger Böckenhoff was in the audience.”

He told them he wanted to record them and he’s now their producer on the audite label. They also used Hewitt’s piano technician, Gerd Finkelstein, “so our recording team is same as hers.”

Chamberfest presents Cheng² Duo, Angela Hewitt and Yosuke Kawasaki
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Aug. 3 at 1 p.m.
Tickets and information: chamberfest.com

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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.