Upon entering Ursula Oppens’ modestly furnished, yet comfortable Upper West Side apartment with a view of the pedigreed patina of the historistic cupola belonging to Columbia University’s campus building, one is immediately taken by the vibrant aura that surrounds the eminent musician.
The personable pianist speaks softly, yet animatedly, in a welcoming way; her reputation is linked to an astonishingly vast array of distinguished contemporary composers, some of whose prominent works were dedicated to Oppens. Unsurprisingly, Oppens has in turn become one of their most incisive promoters.
photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - GetClassical
Oppens was recently celebrated by her long standing fans on the occasion of her 70th Birthday with a concert at Symphony Space. The show was a collaborative project by several of her students: Winston Choi, Ran Dank, Soyean Kate Lee, and Anthony Molinaro, honoring her work and legacy. Oppens’ pianistic career has been particularly impacted by her collaboration with the legendary American composer Elliot Carter, who remains a tremendous source of inspiration for her.
“One summer I came to Marlboro, nervous, young and easily impressionable. I had not had formal music lessons during college, but there I was. Carter was visiting that summer, and they spontaneously decided to play some of his music. There was little time to prepare and I ended up volunteering. I had heard his music before in Aspen, and also had heard him speak about it. I remember when I started reading through the score for the first time, and practice for its performance, I had played a wrong note, intuitively sensing its wrongness. There was a very strong sense of understanding the text and its coherence, and I discovered a very important relationship,” explains Oppens.
The performance of his Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord that she had prepared for went well. When Oppens experienced a similar situation with Carter’s double concerto at Tanglewood, it was clear to her that this was meant to be an ongoing relationship: “the rest is history,” says Oppens, as she describes working with the sophisticated composer. Carter’s masterpiece Night Fantasies was co-commissioned and funded by Oppens. photo: Ursula Oppens with Elliot Carter, A.Addey
“He always was extremely kind, but insisted firmly on all the expressive indications of the phrasing and on what stands out,” she explains, “I always felt a bit tongue-tied in his presence, admiring his enormous command of languages and memory but most of all his gregarious personality: To me he represented the ideal of the educated creator, and I love teaching his music to my students, giving on his legacy.” Oppens’ success with her students at CUNY’s Graduate Center and the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College , where she holds teaching positions as Distinguished Professor of Music, brings her great personal joy, as well as the satisfaction of continuing the modernist tradition, some of which had started out in her own hands.
“I am very lucky that there are a number of wonderful pieces that have been written for me,” she says, while she shows me an old membership card to the ‘International Society for Contemporary Music’ that had belonged to her father, Kurt Oppens. “The society is still functioning today, and I guess part of my interest in contemporary music is simply inherited from both my parents.” Oppens’ parents were both part of the music world “and great modernist enthusiasts,” she says. She herself, a Radcliffe graduate, spent a lot of her time at the society. Radcliffe did not have its own music performance or composition department at the time, and it was at the society where she forged relationships with other musicians, some of whom she still considers close friends. Only after attending Juilliard, and studying under reputed pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne, did Oppens actively seek out a pianist’s career, which included some partaking in the competition-cycle; she became a first prize winner at the Busoni competition, and a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1976.
Over many years, Oppens gained an unparalleled reputation for her access and attention to music that was challenging, by composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Charles Wuorinen. She has gained four Grammy nominations for her recordings of both romantic and contemporary repertoire. The widely praised album Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano, released in 2011 on Cedille Records, put her up for her latest nomination to date for “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” in 2012/13.
photo: courtesy of Hemsing Associates
“When you are with musician-friends, you want to make music together,” which is something she appreciates in her ongoing partnership with the distinguished pianist and Juilliard professor Jerome Lowenthal: “we play four-hands repertoire all the time together, and never run out of things to talk about.” One of the results of their intimate pianistic exchange is captured on their recent two-piano CD on Cedille Records, devoted to Visions d’Amen of Olivier Messiaen, and Debussy’s En blanc et noir.
Previously Oppens had been married to the late composer and avantgarde jazz- saxophonist Julius Hemphill, whom she had met on a 1983 New York States Council of the Arts tour.
In a musician’s life, befriending other musicians often forges the path to a career. Some of the first composers Oppens met at the International Society, and approached for works she could perform, were Peter Lieberson and Tobias Picker. Not long thereafter, a grant from YCA, which supported the young pianist, allowed Oppens to receive a new commission by the Washington Performance Art Society in the form of a work written for her by Frederic Rzewski, who now resides in Brussels (only a phone call away, says Oppens): “I did not expect an hour long piece, and did not know what the public’s reaction would be- for all I knew, they could have booed,” but The People United Will Never Be Defeated became one of the cornerstone works she became renowned for in her long lasting, and still active career.
“I was always willing to take chances, and was curious about works I had not heard before,” says Oppens, who spent many of her formative summers backstage at the Aspen Music Festival. This credo remains at the essence of who she is, a free spirit. Oppens also appreciates performing on occasions that demonstrate her humanistic and democratic worldview. A riveting experience for her was partaking at the 37th.anniversary of Portugal's Carnation Revolution in Lisbon , on April of 2011, commemorating the overthrow of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. She performed the Portugese national anthem as part of her performance of Rzewski's The People United Will Never Defeat, at the highly emotionally charged celebration of national liberation.
In 1971, Oppens co-founded Speculum Musicae, a new music chamber group, with some of her closest friends and associates including cellist Fred Sherry, percussionist Richard Fritz, and oboist Joel Marangella. “Rolf Schulte and Virgil Black were also members,” says Oppens, “it was such an exciting time. Like now, many groups were formed by students who did not need to gain approval by the conservative institutions. There was a lot of support available and new venues to perform opened up.”
“One of the main aspects of our particular group was Elliot Carter. He held us together, and is one of the reasons we are still working together closely,” she says. “We all loved his music; his passion connected us, and his kindness towards us kept our friendships intact, even long after we went our own ways.”
The New York Times praised her recent performance at a Carter tribute concert in 2013, which captured the “fevered anxiety and poetic reverie” of Carter’s Night Fantasies, written for her, with an “unfailing sense of drama and almost cinematic color.”
While Carter holds a special place in Oppens’ heart and performance career, from about 1975 onwards, she furiously championed an array of different composers. Their collective conglomerate reads like an encyclopedic list of the contemporary idiom and includes composers as varied as John Adams, Julius Hemphill, Frederic Rzewski, Conlon Nancarrow, John Corigliano, John Harbison, William Bolcom, Anthony Braxton, Tania Léon, Tobias Picker, and Charles Wuorinen.
She has also excelled in performances of works by European modernist masters like Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Witold Lutoslawski. But as she says modestly: “I can only learn so and so much new music, before every concert, every recording, I am just thinking of the next note.” Next to her recordings and recitals of many of the works of her contemporaries, she equally loves the traditional, classical repertoire, which she also practices every day.
“I feel the necessity to play and practice both, tonal and atonal music. You have to stay open-minded, going to the notation as if you have never heard it before, which is also very important for performing older music. But it is new music that has made me love the translation from the notation to the sound.” She offers the following piece of advice to students: “You cannot un-hear a piece of music you have listened to on a recording, that’s why I suggest listening to more than one, to see a range of possibilities of interpretations. It’s very much about the human factor and the surprise of the outcome, the ambiguity of transition.”
One of Oppens’ interesting projects, which she began a while back, is the collaboration with pianist Bruce Brubaker in a compilation of Meredith Monk’s works for solo piano and piano-duo, titled: Piano Songs; the CD will be released on the ECM label in May of 2014. This will coincide with Meredith Monk’s composing residency at Carnegie Hall, during the 2014/15 season.
”Bruce and I knew each other from Juilliard, and he performed a lot of some of the same composers’ work, I had too, but we had never performed together until we were brought together by Meredith’s music, performing in a celebratory concert of the composer at Zankel Hall, in 2005. A lot of the energy to make this recording happen came from Bruce; we kept adding on pieces until we had a complete disc. We gave a concert in Boston and then recorded at the exquisite Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory, where Bruce is the chair of the piano department,” she explains.
“Some of the pieces started out as scores for voices, or voices and other instruments, and transporting these into another world gives us all the wonderful opportunity of hearing the music afresh,” says Brubaker in the disc’s liner notes. “The pieces are based on works from 1971 to 2006.” Photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - GetClassical
“Meredith Monk’s music is extremely interesting,” adds Oppens, “because it seems to come from simple parts, but becomes very intricate – I would kind of compare it to Mozart, in that you think the recapitulation of his sonatas are just like the exposition, except for the key signature; but then you notice all the subtle differences; it has a perfect balance, but it keeps on changing, going forward,” she says. Brubaker also comments on the “intriguing balance” in Monk’s piano music, “between simplicity and a kind of music you’ve never really heard before.” On writing for two pianos, the composer notes: “I delved into different relationships and the possibilities between them…In some pieces, I emphasized the individuality of each piano, writing for one player as the ‘singer,’ the other as the ‘accompaniment;’ in other pieces, I wanted the two pianos to make one large sound.”
In November of 2014, Brubaker and Oppens will perform a program drawn from Monk’s Piano Songs at LePoisson Rouge.
"During the last few years, I have been doing more recordings than expected," says Oppens, "it may have to do with my age: You feel like you need to recapitulate pieces that you learned over a long period, and there is definetly something to be said about wanting to summarize things."
Upcoming projects for the 2014/ 2015 season will include a Bernard Rands disc in the fall, a William Bolcom recording for Naxos, and a re-recording project of The People Reunited , complete with an improvised cadenza by Oppens.