One Piano, Four Hands Concert to Reconnect Lifelong Friends
By Tim Meehan
When they were 14 in Taiwan, Ching-Ming Cheng and Janet Kao were friends who shared a passion for learning music and the many ways it can be used to convey stories and emotions.
They went their separate ways after high school, easily losing touch in a time with no social media.
While Kao moved to the United States to study at USC, Cheng stayed in Taiwan to further pursue her love of piano.
This week the childhood friends will be reunited nearly 7,000 miles from where they grew up together – at Cal State San Marcos.
The two classically trained pianists are performing a “Piano for Two” concert Friday at 7 p.m. in the Arts building as part of the Arts & Lectures series. The event is free for CSUSM students; $5 for faculty, staff and alumni; and $10 for community members. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door if available.
“You have to be on the same wavelength in order to feel the harmony,” said Cheng, a professor and the chair of the CSUSM School of Arts music department. “If you don't really like the person, you have to play together, and imagine that kind of conflict. So it's been really fun to play with a real friend. I used to play and perform with musicians that I probably would only meet once. And then we will have to work together, which is fine. But that's more like just business. We get the performance done, and we move on. But with Janet, it's been very rewarding, and we learn from each other.”
Cheng is an award-winning piano virtuoso who has performed for audiences around the world. She has been honored by several organizations for her playing as well as by educator groups for her teaching. She’s been a faculty member at CSUSM since 2011.
Kao is a lecturer in the College of Performing Arts at Chapman University. She has received teaching fellowships from the Julliard School and the USC Thornton Opera and is a vocal coach who has contributed her expertise to many operas in Los Angeles and worldwide.
After reconnecting about five ago after two decades apart, they have been driving back and forth between Orange and North County to rehearse. But to both, it’s been more about reconnecting with an old friend rather than deciding who plays what part.
“It’s so wonderful to collaborate with a childhood friend like Ching-Ming,” Kao said. “We had similar musical backgrounds, and we knew each other really well. It makes the rehearsal process really fun. When we get together to rehearse, it’s like a high school reunion. We practiced and discussed the music in detail, and we ended the day with some yummy meals.”
The duo prepared a concert during the pandemic, but it involved each of them on their own piano. It was part of Cheng’s concert series that she developed while thinking about the true purpose of performance and how that drastically changed a few years ago.
A trained solo pianist, she used to prepare for concerts by playing pieces by herself for hours. Isolated from the outside world as best she could. While getting a chance to step back and reflect in 2020, Cheng kept asking herself what she missed most during a time performances were shut down.
The answer for Cheng was simple. It was the same as the purpose she discovered for herself many years ago – to share music with people.
“Art is everywhere in life,” Kao said. “I think people of all ages should attend art shows and performances so you not only learn things from textbook, but you get to experience art itself in the performance.”
This unique “one piano, four hands” technique means the duo sitting side-by-side playing classical pieces. While the right-side pianist primarily plays the melody as the lead, the partner on the left side plays a more supporting role.
It plays perfectly to Kao’s style as a coach as she’s used to listening and following.
The most fascinating parts of Friday’s show could be when there’s overlapping. There has been a lot bumping into each other during rehearsals so the choreography of the show may be just as impressive as the final pieces themselves.
The end result this week will be a unique concert featuring the works of classical composers Schubert and Fauré.
But the process matters. As much as the duo takes pride in the final product, the journey to get here has been about reconnecting with a childhood friend.
“Making music is not just playing, there's a lot of ideas that we need to be on the same page,” Cheng said “It's funny because when I met her, we were in high school. I had only known her for three years and that was 20-something years ago. We went through so much in life. Time and space change the person, and there's a difference. Now we're in 2023.
“So getting to know the person, the personality, the philosophy for life, or how she would interpret music. It's all part of the process. It's not just play notes together. We have to speak the same language so that we can be in sync when we perform.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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