Viet Cuong’s Piano Concerto Enchants at California Symphony

The California Symphony under Donato Cabrera — who is now artistic director as well as music director — gave another frequently daring and successful concert at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek on Saturday, May 20.

The new music side of the program belonged to the Symphony’s current Young American Composer-in-Residence, Viet Cuong, and to Sarah Cahill, the prominent local pianist and new-music advocate, for whom Cuong has written a concerto, which received its first performance at this concert.

The piece is titled Stargazer . In Cuong’s imagination, the pianist is the gazer and the orchestra forms the stars. What this means in practice is a hushed, nocturnal single movement. In Cahill’s hands, the piano rummages around in a busy but quiet way, more in the manner of piano obbligato than a display concerto, while the orchestral sound hovers above it, emitting every bright chiming sound in its repertoire. This listener was reminded that Cuong’s most renowned work is a percussion concerto titled Re(new)al .

Heavier held lines come in and add some heft to the orchestral part. Bass drum rolls and cymbal crashes provide an energetic addition to the chimes. Sometimes the piano emerges from underneath the orchestra, but sounding as much like it as possible. Gradually the neo-Baroque ground bass which has been lurking underneath all along emerges and assumes a strong cadential role. This gives the music the same kind of repetitive soothing melancholy characteristic of a piece like