"Even if you have to walk from Naples to Fort Lauderdale and back, Peg, you must hear this pianist perform," said two people whose opinions I value.
One was Giselle Brodsky, who with her husband scours the world in search of that rarest of rare talents: the child prodigy.
Once a child is found who meets their standards, their organization, Patrons of Exceptional Artists, nourishes them, underwrites expenses, and obtains performance venues for their extraordinary talents worldwide. The Miami International Piano Festival has come into being thanks to their tireless efforts and the willingness of patrons to support this worthy cause.
The other person who insisted I change my schedule to hear the 13-year-old prodigy, Rachel Cheung, was William Noll.
Noll, who resides in Naples and New York City, is a conductor, and a classical and jazz pianist of considerable note, and the force behind arranging for Naples to become the second American site for the International Piano Fest.
Rachel, who resides with her parents and younger sister in Hong Kong, already has such stunning musicianship she is being compared to the finest performing pianists of all time. Considering who most people would put on such a list, those are very large shoes to fill.
And so, accompanied by three other devotees of classical piano, I drove to the Broward County Center of Performing Arts for the Thursday evening performance. There, nearly 600 people, including a number of children, were excitedly waiting to hear this child perform.
Perform she did. For the next 2 hours 20 minutes, this slightly built, pony-tailed girl, attired in a simple black velvet long dress and flats, slipped quietly on and off stage following completion of each selection. She looked closer to 11 than 13 and, I would guess, does not even weigh 100 pounds.
Only two responses came from the audience all evening: profound silence and thunderous applause, cheers and whistles. The excitement was palpable.
From time to time someone comes along whose musicianship is so extraordinary the instrument becomes, in essence, an extension of their hands. Rachel took this phenomenon one step further: she became the piano, her fingers gliding with such effortless grace, people were commenting they could not even see her play the notes on a number of occasions.
I couldn't either, my astonishment over her technical facility building with her every selection. Her program for the evening can best be described as daunting. Spanning three centuries of some of the most challenging piano music written by each of six composers, I am not exaggerating when I say she made it look easy.
The program opened with Bach's intensely challenging "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor." I knew right away this child was blessed with magical abilities. She nailed the recitative, made the grand fugue portion appear no more complex than a simple finger exercise, and smiled shyly when the audience erupted at its conclusion.
Next up were some of Joseph Haydn's final piano works: three movements from his "Sonata in E-flat Major." She was simply dazzling during the staccato portions, completely subduing the keyboard to her whims during the "adagio," and managed the explosive "rhondo" with ease — and demonstrated sensitive pedal work as well.
Surely, I thought, her hands are too small to do justice to the three selections selected from Franz Liszt's difficult piano works. How foolish of me to consider such a possibility, as once again she performed the physically taxing selections: "Etude in F Minor, La Leggierezza," "Aubord d'une source," and "Etude in E major, La Chasse,' with sensitivity far beyond her chronological age.
On a scale of one to four, I was ready to give this performance a 10.
She performed the cross-hand passages as though the challenge were non-existent. So small, she stood to increase her power from time to time, and she performed the double-time portions and glissandi with ease, her nuances something to behold.
It only got better.
Next up was Chopin's "Variations Brilliantes in B Flat Major." Cheung's mastery of this too infrequently performed salon piece was a delight. We were now two-thirds through her program, and she had yet to give even the slightest hint of a bobble.
She completed the romantic portion of her program with three selections by Faure: "Nocturne No. l in E-flat minor," "Barcarolle No. 4 in A-flat Major," and "Impromptu No. 2 in F minor." I found her performance of these gentle, subtle pieces obscenely good. Again, she made the difficult seem easy, displaying technical near-perfection and beautiful sensitivity to Faure's every nuance.
Prokofiev performed by a 13-year-old? This may be her downfall, I mused, aware of the degree of technical facility required to physically perform "Suggestion Diabolique" and Prokofiev's "Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28." Indeed, for a moment I thought she might have forgotten the score of the final selection, as she sat motionless for several seconds. To the contrary, she was simply focusing.
The keyboard all but exploded during the "Allegro Tempesto" of the final selection.
When it was over, the audience presented Cheung with seven bouquets — and a small white stuffed lamb.
She has a rare talent, already on the cusp of greatness. The only problem with being a child prodigy is that you grow up. Much can happen — not always good — in these next few years. Given the vagaries of adulation, therefore, whether she will be afforded immortality or obscurity as an adult pianist is, to some extent, beyond her control.
What she is now, however, cannot be denied: Thursday evening she proved herself to be the rarest of the rare.
Peg Goldberg Longstreth was trained as a classical musician and owns Longstreth-Goldberg ART in Naples. You may e mail her at email@example.com.