Talking with pianists: James Cheung

Talking with pianists: James Cheung

Jenna Simeonov

London-based pianist James Cheung’s collaborations with singers have taken him to stages from Moscow to Banff, recitaling with the likes of Ian Bostridgr, Miriam Khalil, and Joan Rodgers. This month he begins a recital tour with baritone Christian Gerhaher, stopping at the Tonhalle in Düsseldorf, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Peterhouse Theatre in Cambridge, and London’s Wigmore Hall.

We spoke with Cheung about the mutual learning that happens between pianist and singer, and the unlikely similarities between Nirvana and Lieder.

What can pianists learn from singers, and vice versa?

When learning piano music we’re often told to imagine words to go along with what we’re playing or to really “speak” with our fingers. This idea becomes tangible when working with a singer who is really committed to the text, so that musical phrases take on a new dimension with real life inside them. The syntax and grammar of the music becomes a natural tool of musical expression. With more experienced singers I’ve always been amazed at the way they use rhythm. Being able to express the rhythm of speech in music and breathing with emotion whether sensual or violent is so powerful and important for pianists to experience because the piano is so unnatural in a way. I find it really inspiring and it’s what drew me to playing with singers initially.

What are the pianist’s responsibilities of text interpretation when playing art song?

I like that the text gives me more of a focussed palette of colours to choose from whilst working on a song. I really hate having too much choice whether it’s on a menu or Netflix so I appreciate having the infinite sonic possibilities narrowed down a bit by the music having a narrative attached to it. I think that the piano’s role in a song is to create a mixture of the inner and outer world for the protagonist represented by the singer to live in, so the text gives us the framework in which to place colours to do that. The degree to which we make our “illustrations” oblique or clear is down to the taste of the individual pianist but our main responsibility is to be flexible enough to complement and support the singer however necessary.

Why do you enjoy working with singers? What do you find most challenging about it?

I was introduced to working with singers through vocal chamber music. Playing the piano alongside and merging with a living, breathing instrument makes this the most intimate way of making music I’ve experienced and that kind of intimacy is something I sought for a long time in music. Mostly though I just really love the repertoire. I’ve always loved songs from the perspective of angst-ridden, depressed young men constantly longing for something inaccessible and somehow the music I play now and the music I listened to as a teenager touch the same part in me. I grew up listening to Nirvana and that kind of thing and I’ve always felt like Lieder for me is the same really.

I also really like working with singers because something about the vibration of the voice makes me feel really good. I can’t explain it but it feels weirdly healthy. In terms of challenges, I can’t say I enjoy the business side of music.

Do you have a favourite song?

My favourite classical songs are probably the ones by Schubert that I worked on with Miriam Khalil in Aldeburgh. It was my first experience working with singers and we were there having masterclasses with Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber. That experience for me is like a tattoo on my soul. The songs are like a soundtrack to an epiphany that really changed my life. I think we worked on Der Zwerg, Der Junge und Der Tod, Nacht und Traume etc..

I also really like Nachtviolen after working on it with Anne-Marie MacIntosh at Banff this summer. My favourite song of all time is probably “Hey” by The Pixies.

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