It’s like a breath of fresh air when you speak to someone as unassuming as Canadian-born Berlin-based cellist Bryan Cheng, who is on a national tour of South Africa for four orchestral concerts and four recitals with his sister, the acclaimed pianist Silvie Cheng. He will be with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) to perform the Elgar Cello Concerto in its third concert in Summer Symphonies at the City Hall on Thursday, 23 November 2023, says PETA STEWART:
Clearly Bryan Cheng is on a path to the highest honours, with medals from the Queen Elisabeth, Concours de Genève and Finland’s Paulo cello competitions on his mantlepiece for want of a better place!
“All these titles are equally meaningful,” he says, “because these experiences came at various key stages of my musical development. The Paulo competition was my first major international and I had no expectations to advance and certainly not to end up being a prize-winner. I gained extremely valuable experience playing with three top-notch orchestras, which prepared me for future competitions. For the next two, the Geneva and Queen Elisabeth (QE), I went knowing much more how to deal with pressure, how to juggle many pieces simultaneously, and how to cope with playing for global audiences and so on.
“With the Geneva and the QE, the extra exposure that came with livestreaming rounds and being broadcast on radio and TV meant that people across the world still tell me how much they enjoyed following my performances online. I cherish the connections I have made throughout all those competitions, with fellow cellists and audiences. “
Cheng got into music thanks to his family.
“I was actually inspired by Silvie(his sister). I use to watch her practice and perform, and when I was three, I told my parents that I wanted to play an instrument as well, but not the piano. My mum didn’t take me seriously at the time, but finally, my mum took me to the Suzuki School in Ottawa. First, I attended a violin masterclass, but I hated what I called the high-pitched and ‘squeaky’ sound. Then came a cello masterclass, and I immediately fell in love with the ‘deep and scary’ sound. That sound is still what attracts me. I probably always knew I would be a professional cellist because I told my parents that one day I would take my cello to work, too! Neither of our parents are musicians, so I don’t think either of us had any idea what we would be getting ourselves into!”
Silvie Cheng has gone on to become an extremely feted pianist, making her Carnegie Hall solo debut in 2011 and establishing a career as both a solo recitalist and collaborative pianist across the world.
Why did Bryan choose the Elgar?
“It is one of those pieces that cellists play for their whole lives. I started playing it when I was around 20 and in the past five or so years, with every performance I feel my interpretation has grown and been shaped by my own life experience. It’s one of those works that is so emotion-laden, that one needs to balance not only the pure passion and drama, but also this incredibly long narrative line from beginning to end of the concerto. In essence, it represents a full life, and after the final notes, one should feel a bit like their soul has been taken on a profound journey through Elgar’s music.”
Bryan was raised in Ottawa in Canada, but went to Berlin for his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the Universität der Künste Berlin and decided to make Berlin his base.
“I had built up a wonderful network of dear friends and colleagues but it was the rich cultural life and the importance of classical music in German society that appealed. It is quite the privilege to be able to live in one of the global hotspots for the arts, having the possibility to hear world-class concerts, operas, visit museums and art galleries every day,” he says.
Bryan is a big foodie and is also a fan of the great outdoors in his “small pockets of free time on tour” so we hope he has had some time on this South African tour to hike, and sample good food and wine. He is finishing his tour with recitals in Jonkershoek and Hermanus so there’s a chance that can happen. Then he is off to Germany for one final concert this year, giving the premiere of an arrangement he wrote for string quintet of Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations.
“The concert combines some of my biggest passions: arranging music for new formations, my enthusiasm for Piazzolla and tango music, and of course, playing in chamber ensembles with fantastic musicians.”
What: Cellist Bryan Cheng with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra / Robert Moody conductor
Where and when: 23 November 2023 at the City Hall, Cape Town