For pianist Leona Cheung, the idea of collaboration has always been in her blood — and it’s a musical aspect she’s continuing to build her career on.
When you go to a small child’s music recital and see a pianist in the background accompanying them, what do you think of them? Your answer is probably nothing. But their work has been tireless and often underappreciated; they’re probably keeping the kid in tempo during the performance, rehearsed with them plenty both to get ready for the performance but also teach them how to play with others, and had to deal with teachers, parents, and crying kids.
But their work goes far beyond the beginning pedagogy of music — collaborative pianists (often referred to as mere accompanists) are found at every level of music-making and play a vital role in the rehearsal and performance process. They prove to be even more vital for vocalists; opera and ballet companies do not have the pleasure of having a full-blown orchestra to rehearse with until the later stages of the process. Repetiteurs serve as the stalwart day-to-day musical support for the performers and production, while also being a source of education and confidence for the process.
How does one even come into the collaborative piano? Learning piano can be a very solitary process. The breadth of solo piano music is dizzying and essential for learning the tools needed to succeed. I can speak from experience of working with pianists who are not used to collaborating; their idea of tempo is so fluid and free that music-making is a struggle, to say the least. Pianists often find their interest in collaborative piano later in life as they begin exploring career options and higher education.
For Leona Cheung however, collaboration has always been in her blood. Growing up in Hong Kong, she began her music education with piano at 5 and children’s choir at 7. Choral music is absolutely one of the best ways to ever get a sense of musical community and collaboration; you learn to literally breathe and feel the music as a collective unit, and blending and contributing efforts become second nature. Cheung insists it all comes back to her experiences in choral music that led her on the path to becoming a professional collaborative pianist.
Perhaps even more formative for Cheung was her post-collegiate experiences; after earning her Bachelors’s in Hong Kong for piano performance, a conductor friend of hers tapped her for a choral festival they were forming. At the said festival and in subsequent experiences, she got the opportunity to work with legendary choral conductor Helmuth Rilling, not once, but five times! Rilling is perhaps best known for his dedication to the choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach, the titan of Baroque music.
He has recorded (twice) all of Bach’s choral works, spanning over a thousand works. Bach’s music is always known for its harmonic and melodic intricacy – a deft understanding of how all voices and parts intertwine and work with one another. No doubt that an understanding of Bach’s works can help inform musical collaboration broadly.
Leona Cheung’s post-collegiate experiences helped lead her to pursue a postgraduate degree at New England Conservatory (where she met and collaborated with Angela Yam!), and now working full-time as a professional collaborative pianist. Just this summer she’s working as Staff Pianist for Janiec Opera Company, and the Seraphic Fire Choral Institute for the Aspen Music Festival as Choral Faculty.
Cheung highlighted how different the timeline and experience of these two commitments are. Being a staff pianist for an opera production is a long, at least several-month process. She is serving as repetiteur for the vocalists (all students in this case) as they learn their parts, helping them to work on both technical accuracy (Cheung’s perfect pitch is always a handy tool for knowing when you’re singing in tune!) and an understanding of the work in the broader context. Her work extends all the way through larger rehearsals, sitzprobes, and final performances as part of the orchestral ensemble.
That throughline in the musical process only serves to help deepen and inform the understanding of the opera, and how she can better support everyone else’s musical contributions. She highlights her excitement around learning and working through the production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a chamber opera built around a twelve-tone “Screw” melodic theme. So much of Opera is associated with the lush, romantic sounds of the 1800s, so a work that begins to play with purposeful dissonance and the Second Viennese School of music-making is a rare treat to work outside of typical musical areas.
Meanwhile, her work for the Choral Institute is accomplished all within two weeks of long, intensive rehearsal days. Summer festivals are built around the gathering of professional and pre-professional musicians gathering together for a quick, intensive process of putting together a concert in a very short period of time. Cheung finds that the variety of rehearsal processes keeps her excited about the work, and demonstrates her ability, as all great collaborative pianists have, to adapt and evolve to ever-changing musical environments.
With so much of her musical output in service of larger organizations, what does Cheung love most about music-making personally? She is incredibly humble when asked about her musical inspirations: she cites everyone she has ever collaborated or worked with. They all contributed and taught her something in her process. She highlights art songs as her favorite genre of music to make. It is perhaps the most intimate collaborative vocal experience possible. Art song is one vocalist and one pianist weaving together a story built around a set of poetry tied to music. They are often grouped in song cycles, which can be tied together as vaguely to a mood, or tell a specific story of a character.
In particular, she highlights Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen as her favorite song cycle. Set around Mahler’s own texts regarding his unhappy relationship with Johanna Richter, the music is sweeping and enormous. Clearly reflecting all of her experiences, the biggest challenge of playing the piano parts for this cycle, is that work is often also performed by a voice accompanied by an orchestra. Finding a way to balance the intimacy of piano and voice, while also being just as lush and encompassing as a symphony, is a challenge that Cheung finds really rewarding. The balancing act of music making at a variety of scales and situations is so clearly second nature for Leona Cheung, making her the ideal example of the art of collaborative piano.
Service Info: More info about Leona Cheung and her upcoming work can be found at https://www.leonacheung.com/.
Sean Ang (they/them) is a recovering techie finding joy again. On any given day you can find them planning parties, critiquing art institutions, or sweating in an ice rink.