Cheers and premieres to toast Ursula Oppens at 75

Sun Feb 03, 2019 at 12:48 pm
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Ursula Oppens performed two world premieres at her 75th birthday celebration Saturday night at Merkin Hall.

If that big box with the hammers and strings inside is a living instrument of today and not a museum piece, Ursula Oppens can claim a sizable share of the credit.

For roughly half a century, this New York-born pianist has been the working composer’s best friend, relentless in her quest for new piano music of quality and brilliant in her advocacy of it, both at the keyboard and on organization boards.

Merkin Concert Hall was packed Saturday night with her friends and admirers for a celebration of the pianist’s 75th birthday on its exact date. But there would be no sitting back and basking in the occasion for the hard-working artist, who played most of the program herself, including two world premieres and two other pieces composed for her.

In fact, the only music on the program not composed for Oppens was an example of the “radical modern music” of 1903, Ravel’s String Quartet, performed by the Cassatt String Quartet.

Making their world bows that evening were Tobias Picker’s URSULA for piano solo and Laura Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet “for Ursula,” appealing pieces that deserve a place in the repertoire of technically able pianists.

Leading off the program was the Picker piece, a brief toccata based on a motive from the first piece he composed for Oppens in 1976, When Soft Voices Die. If there was any question about the pianist’s chops at her advanced age, it was dispelled by her exuberant execution of Picker’s lightning-fast, fractured boogie-woogie.

Closing the program, Kaminsky’s new quintet proved a concise work of considerable substance and atmosphere, making resourceful use of the piano as partner, foil, or antagonist to the strings.

In comments from the stage, the composer said she felt this birthday party called for a cheerful first movement, and indeed this music, titled “anthem,” was a riot of interlocking rhythms in 13/8 meter, inspired by Ghanaian drumming, that had taken the players 15 hours of rehearsal time to get right, she said. By contrast, the movement’s harmonic profile was simple, a quasi-minimalist seesaw between two chords, often with roomy, Copland-style chord spacing, so that the music sounded at times like an Appalachian-Ghanaian hoedown.

But Kaminsky said she couldn’t ignore the current political climate in this country, which she described as “dark”; she sought to address it in the second movement, “lamentation; coming into light,” which climbed slowly from the piano’s deepest register to forceful, eloquent statements by the pianist and the quartet before closing on a hopeful yet suspenseful note.

Here one was especially aware of the quality of Oppens’s tone—full and projected even in the softest pianissimo, and capable of producing tremendous impact in forte chords without sounding pinched or banged. Her pedaling was unusually subtle for new-music interpretation, managing resonances and overlapping tones like an expert Chopin player.

Individually and as a group, the players of the Cassatt Quartet—Muneko Utani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; Ah Ling Neu, viola; and Elizabeth Anderson, cello—matched their piano partner for tonal richness and rhetorical flair.

Dark thoughts were banished in the finale, titled “maelstrom, and…,” a sort of tone-cluster etude for the pianist. The little bunched chords went everywhere: powder-puff clusters, hardball clusters, dry clusters, smeary clusters, clusters in scales, clusters leaping high and low. The quartet accompanied all this activity with full-throated solos or cushioning chords, until everything calmed down for one more visit to Appalachia in the work’s quiet, hopeful conclusion.

The non-premiere works on the program offered many delights as well. Composer John Corigliano amusingly described from the stage his process of writing a piano piece for Oppens when he himself had never learned to play the piano—which consisted of messing around with a MIDI keyboard until he got something that sounded good, then transcribing it.

And indeed, in Oppens’s faithful rendition, Corigliano’s aptly named 2008 Winging It, III sounded just like a kid bashing and noodling on a piano—except this kid was a 70-year-old master who’d won every composition award there was.

Elliott Carter’s Two Diversions of 1999 were a pleasingly contrasted pair, the first piece a chaotic-sounding layer cake of slow chords, a meandering tune, and crazy spurts of notes in all directions, the second a two-part invention for a steady voice and a wildly scherzando one. Oppens delivered it all with the insight and musical flair that has made her the go-to interpreter of this composer’s piano music.

The Cassatt’s Ravel was all silken tone and sudden gusts; as delightful as it sounded now, one also had no trouble imagining the bafflement and rejection the piece encountered at the young composer’s 1903 conservatory jury. The ensemble took its time, savoring Ravel’s novel textures and generating excitement not by fast tempos but by the electricity of articulation in fingertips and bows.

Festive extras at this event included jazz, pop, and classical music composed in 1944, Oppens’s birth year, piped into the auditorium as the audience gathered.

Before the music and at mid-program, Oppens, composers Picker, Corigliano and Kaminsky, and quartet members Otani and Anderson came onstage for brief chats with WQXR radio host Terrance McKnight. Although the classical D.J.’s questions were mostly inane, it was still good to see those worthies and hear their words of praise for the guest of honor.


3 Responses to “Cheers and premieres to toast Ursula Oppens at 75”

  1. Posted Feb 03, 2019 at 8:21 pm by Dr Indira Etwaroo

    I attended last evening’s concert, celebrating the birthday and work of the ever-evolving, ever-exquisite Ursula Oppens. I found the conversation to be uniquely soulful, keenly intelligent, and warm – a tone set by WQXR radio host and professor of music Terrance McKnight; a welcomed addition to the adventurous repertory of music.

    I particularly loved being drawn into the evening through conversation, which moved us, as an audience through the simple question that almost always gets overlooked in the world of classical music: What does it mean to be human? Kaufman Music Center continue to do what you’re doing and please continue to make brave choices that reflect the beautiful diversity of our city and our world.

  2. Posted Feb 04, 2019 at 5:07 pm by Juan Serrano-Badrena

    I also attended this event on Saturday February 3. I was completed enthralled the entire time. I also enjoyed the introduction by Terrance McKnight and the interviews with the musicians. I must say I am rather taken aback and take issue with the final comment that it was “inane.” I completely disagree and find the tone off putting and frankly unprofessional, considering it is a review of a Cultural Program. It did not sit well with me. Very negative.

  3. Posted Feb 05, 2019 at 11:51 am by Grinell-Skot Gilmore

    Dear Ms. Oppens,

    What a gift you provided us by including us in your birthday celebration with insights to your passion, sharing the uniqueness, dedication and the how of some your collaborations. Your treasured skills and remarkable discipline to reach such heralded heights is admirable and astonishing.

    I too was moved by the delightful aptitude and playful spirit of Terrance McKnight, musical educator, moderator and collaborator of “Only At Merkin with Terrance McKnight.” Nightly you make classical music understandable and a little bit closer to the heart. Your intelligence, wit and candor allowed for us all to become more comfortable in our seats and in our comprehension of the often complex musical explorations of newer music.

    To you both, may your continued passion, delight and willingness to let us “in” always be as harmonious as your 75th birthday celebration.

    Most cordially,
    Grinell-Skot Gilmore

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