Cheng² Duo – October 13, 2023

Chamber Music Kelowna opened their 2023/2024 season Friday evening with a much-anticipated visit from the brilliant Canadian cello/piano ensemble, Cheng² Duo (Cheng Squared Duo). Along with being comprised of two outstanding and internationally acclaimed musicians, the Cheng² Duo is also unique in that cellist Bryan Cheng and pianist Silvie Cheng are siblings. Their consummate artistry and close rapport were evident throughout the evening’s performance. This was also a rare opportunity for listeners to hear the 1696 ‘Bonjour’ Stradivarius cello on loan to Cheng from the Canada Council for the Arts. 

The concert opened with the colourful Five Pieces on Folk Themes by Georgian-born cellist and composer, Sulkhan Tsintsadze. The five short movements, each loosely based on traditional Georgian folk melodies, showcased the duo’s fun and playful side as well as their ability to seamlessly navigate rapid shifts of character and mood. The somber and pensive Arobnaya was followed by a spirited movement for solo pizzicato cello, Chonguri, reminiscent of the lute-like traditional instrument the choghur. The rhythmic Sachidao opened to the sonorous third movement, Nana, based on a traditional Georgian lullaby which many listeners may have already been familiar with from Tchaikovsky’s earlier setting of this melody. The work concluded with the Plyasovaya; a spirited village dance. 

The Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano “Shifting Baselines” by the American cellist and composer Paul Wiancko closed the first half. Written for the Cheng² Duo in 2020, this work demonstrated an unapologetic fusion of classical form with jazz idioms, extended techniques and an improvisational feel. Beginning and ending with a walking bass line played in unison, and complete tandem, by both artists, the piece unfolded in a grand arch. Wiancko himself describes the work as a “reflection on my continuing journey with Beethoven’s C major Sonata…and an attempt to distill my own musical language down to its core elements.’’ The grand climax of the work consisting of repeated C major scales played by the cello over bell-like chords in the piano was particularly evocative of this. Drawing on Wianckos’s extensive background in everything from jazz improvisation to world music and indie rock, this work showcased not only cellist Bryan Cheng’s incredible technical abilities but also gave the audience a glimpse into the immense world of sound possibilities of the cello. 

The little-known piece, Andante molto in F minor by Jean Sibelius opened the second half of the concert. The artists highlighted the sibling connection in their onstage remarks, noting that Jean wrote this piece for his younger, cello-playing brother, Christian. Aside from one furious cello outburst, the piece was eerily reminiscent of the dark, Finnish winter and was a suitable segue to the final work on the program.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s iconic Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19 concluded the program. Often referred to as a piano sonata with cello accompaniment, this work showcased the incredible strength and sensitivity of Silvie Cheng as a collaborative pianist. She navigated the fistfuls of notes with grace, and both she and cellist Bryan Cheng worked together in seamless harmony to bring this work alive. Filled with some of the most opulent melodies in the repertoire, the Cheng² Duo infused their performance with incredible depth, vitality and joy and had the audience on their feet for a standing ovation the moment the final note was played. 

After multiple curtain calls, the artists treated the audience to their own arrangement of a Chinese folk song, Racing Horses. Cheng’s 1696 cello could have been easily mistaken for an erhu in this piece loaded with pyrotechnics and the sounds of whinnying and galloping horses which had the audience back on their feet for a second ovation.

Sandra Wilmot is a Kelowna-based free-lance musician, educator and violin instructor. She plays professionally with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra and is on faculty at the Kelowna Community Music School.

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