SPECIAL TO MSNBC,
NEW YORK, April 11, 2000
RE: Jerry Wong and Stephanie Shih-yu Cheng,
By Martin Bernheimer
Martin Bernheimer, the former music critic of the Los Angeles Times, reviews for the Financial Times and other publications. His music criticism has won the Pulitzer Prize.
‹ Pulitzer Prize - winning music critic Martin Bernheimer takes a look at the Pèlerinage Duo, a young husband-wife piano team making its ³Little Carnegie² debut at Carnegie Hall later this week.
This is the first in MSNBC Living¹s occasional Young Artists Series, which will profile talented but little-known newcomers in literature and the arts. music videos
Stephanie Shih-yu Cheng and her husband, Jerry Wong, both 27, have practiced, and they have paid their musical dues.
IT¹S A HOARY tale, and no doubt apocryphal. Jascha Heifetz was at the very outset of his dazzling career. The teen-aged violin prodigy somehow got lost en route to his debut at this city¹s most important concert venue. The clock was ticking and he was getting desperate. Clutching his fiddle case, he stopped a man in the street to ask for advice. ³Excuse me, sir, could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?² The answer was tough. ³Practice, my boy, practice.² Stephanie Shih-yu Cheng and Jerry Wong
Stephanie Shih-yu Cheng and her husband, Jerry Wong, both 27 and both pianists, will get to Carnegie Hall on April 16. They have practiced, and they have paid their musical dues. Significantly, however, the prize-winning pair won¹t be playing duets in the big, glamorous auditorium downstairs. Not this time, anyway. The locale for what is hoped may turn out to be a career-changing adventure will be the modest hall upstairs, affectionately known to musicians as ³Little Carnegie² and officially called Weill Recital Hall.
It is an ideal setting for the fragile give and take, point and counterpoint of chamber music. It¹s also a mecca of sorts for new artists who want to drop their calling cards without too much pretension or financial risk, and for established stars who wish to enjoy the rare if relatively unprofitable pleasure of intimate music-making. GETTING STARTED How do careers in so-called serious music get started anyway? A good education helps, but it comes with no guarantees. Winning a contest or two is useful, but doing so demands nerves of steel, bravado and more than a little bit of luck. And when all is said and played, success in a contest never assures ultimate success in a career. Although talented people win all the time, not many of them go on to big-time triumphs. Getting engagements, even engagements in the hinterlands, provides the advantage of useful experience and possibly a profitable public-relations bonus in the form of quotable reviews. Nonetheless, lots of unsuccessful artists can boast scrapbooks full of rave notices.
Listen to the Pèlerinage Duo Stephanie Shih-yu Cheng and Jerry Wong play four selections, from Maurice Ravel, Serge Rachmaninoff, Béla Bartók and Witold Lutoslawski. Also, learn more about the players and see their 2000 performance schedule. Hear the music, and meet the performers
Understatement: Any path leading to fame and fortune is paved with uncertainty. The biggest problem for a would-be Rubinstein or Horowitz or Cliburn or Yo-Yo Ma involves identifying and achieving the breakthrough.
Cheng and Wong have toiled hard and long, individually and together, to reach this crucial juncture. Inspired by Franz Liszt¹s sonic portrait of pilgrims on a noble quest, they play as the Pèlerinage Duo. When conditions are less than perfect ‹ that is, when there isn¹t space, or a budget. for two well-matched pianos on the stage ‹ they play one piano four-hands. Sometimes they go their separate musical ways as soloists. They are, to say the least, flexible. Also remarkably talented.
WORKING AS A TEAM There is nothing about their performances that would suggest studies in progress or interpretations not yet fully realized. They play eloquently and elegantly. Alternating primary and secondary duties whenever convenient, they say they work best as a team. They have been married since 1998, but have been making music together since 1995. They know and respect each other¹s strengths and weaknesses. ³I¹m better at running notes,² Cheng will admit if pressured, ³and Jerry is better at chords.² There is nothing tentative about their performances, nothing that would suggest studies in progress or interpretations not yet fully realized. They play eloquently and elegantly.
None of this means, however, that the Wongs have arrived on the threshold of public adulation or financial triumph. They no doubt will need better breaks and more exposure, much more, before career dreams can become realities. They don¹t have an agent or a publicist, can¹t afford such luxuries. Wong spends a lot of time booking concerts and trying to cultivate a public image. ³Selling yourself is hard,² he declares. ³Its consumes a lot of energy, all this telephoning and networking, and it takes time away from the keyboard. But we have no choice. And no agent still must be better than a bad agent. At least we have our own best interests at heart.²
LIMITED OPPORTUNITIES The duo knows that the opportunities are limited. That¹s a fact of artistic life. In possible quest of sanity insurance as well as income stability, they are sustaining ties in the friendlier, possibly easier, certainly more secure world of academia. Follow the bromide: Those who can, play; and those who can play can also teach.
The Wongs¹ performing schedule looks reasonably busy. As a reward for winning the Italian IBLA International Competition in Italy in 1999 they received a series of engagements both in Europe and the States. Following the Little Carnegie trial by fire, further local appearances are scheduled at the United Nations and New York University. Cheng and Wong have toiled hard and long, individually and together, to reach this crucial juncture. They took the name the Pèlerinage Duo from Franz Liszt's sonic portrait of pilgrims on a noble quest. The Pèlerinage Duo also travels this season to Arkansas for the Little Rock Festival, which sponsors recitals at the University of Arkansas and the Central Arkansas Library plus a lecture-demonstration with students from the Little Rock Public Schools.
Good work? Yes. Prestigious work? Not terribly. The duo doesn¹t seem to mind. Experience and exposure have been gained in public venues big and small. Beginners can only be limited choosers.
NECESSARY EVIL In addition to taking the Grand Prize at the IBLA International, they won the Prix-Ville de Fontainebleau in France. The Wongs regard competitions as something akin to a necessary evil. In addition to taking the Grand Prize at the IBLA International, they won the Prix-Ville de Fontainebleau in France ‹ much to their own surprise. The award was personally bestowed upon them by the illustrious pianist and pedagogue, Philippe Entremont. Playing concerts is hard work, they say, but the result is usually enjoyment. Playing contests is hard work too, but it is accompanied by scary pressure. The challenges may involve the same music, but the effects are painfully dissimilar.
Born in Taiwan, Cheng came to the States in 1988 to study at the Interlochen Academy and later at Peabody, where her illustrious mentor was Ann Schein. Not incidentally, Wong worked with the same teacher at the same institution at the same time. Schein, who spoke the toast at the Wongs¹ wedding, remains a pivotal force in the lives both young artists, though Cheng has found her role more influential. As an independent soloist, Cheng has performed in the United States, France, Japan and Taiwan. She has received first prizes in the Association of Pianists and Piano Teachers of America International Piano Competition and the Kingsville International Competition, and has offered solo recitals at the University of Illinois and the National Concert Hall of Taipei. Her ongoing academic ties involve work on a doctorate at the State University of New York, where she studies with Gilbert Kalish and teaches piano to undergraduates.
Wong, who was born in Southern California, is working under the splendid pianist Byron Janis while completing his doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music. He has performed as soloist and chamber musician throughout the States, not to mention Finland, France, Italy and Japan. Winner of the Bartók-Kabalevsky-Prokofiev International Piano Competition in 1999, he has scheduled a solo appearance at Radford University in Virginia this season. He earned his BA from Indiana under yet another stellar teacher-pianist, Menahem Pressler.
PIZZAZZ, ARDOR, SENSUALITY Advertisement A privately made CD, intended at least in part as an audition exercise, suggests that the two pianists play together with equal parts strength, passion and introspection, with mutual sensitivity and a finely honed sense of style. They muster gutsy pizzazz for the modernist stances of Witold Lutoslawski, counterbalanced by romantic ardor and wispy sensuality for waltzes by two vastly contrasting R¹s: Rachmaninoff and Ravel. They bring soft-edged charm to character pieces of Fauré and hard-edged vitality to a sonata by Bartók.
Artists willing and able to meet tough aesthetic, emotional, scholarly and technical challenges are surprisingly plentiful these days. Major-league opportunities are not. Will Stephanie Shih-yu Cheng and Jerry Wong achieve the success they deserve? The question is virtually imponderable. It¹s a jungle out there. Especially for musicians. Especially for young musicians. Especially for young musicians who play classical music.