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Music
Saint Ursula
Ursula Oppens

The personal and professional attention she pays makes Ursula Oppens a composer's pianist

by Michael Ullman

THE pianist Ursula Oppens lives in an elegant building within sight of the stone gates of Columbia University. Although she is not affiliated with the university, it seems a good place for her: the daughter of a classical-pianist mother and a writer father, she spent her childhood summers in Aspen, at the music school where her parents worked; she attended Radcliffe as an undergraduate and now commutes to Chicago, where she teaches a course in twentieth-century piano music at Northwestern. Oppens seems comfortable around academics, especially the academic composers whose works she has championed -- to such an extent that they have dubbed her Saint Ursula.
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Oppens is not only the foremost interpreter of contemporary piano music. She has also initiated much of it, having commissioned or given premieres to works by Frederic Rzewski, Anthony ClefDavis, Tobias Picker, and Elliott Carter, whose masterpiece Night Fantasies was funded by Oppens in partnership with three other pianists -- Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, and Charles Rosen. It's easy to see why composers enjoy collaborating with her: Oppens has a formidable technique and a formidable intellect to go with it. She sees the connections among things. If Beethoven's Hammerklavier is her "favorite work of art," as she says, she finds a comparably vast romanticism in Pierre Boulez's Second Piano Sonata, and a similarity between Beethoven's and Boulez's scherzos. Her performances are informed by her grasp of structure, her rhythmic power, and her respect for a composer's wishes.

There is also her sheer daring. When she plays the Hammerklavier, she follows Beethoven's metronome markings, which some pianists (and scholars) find absurdly fast. She has recorded the Hammerklavier (Music & Arts CD-734), and she played it at Carnegie Hall last year. In both cases the results were thrilling. She brought out the elaborate eccentricity of the work, with its clangorous opening and dramatic juxtapositions, its grand tremolos and severe yet celebratory fugue, and she simultaneously illuminated its structure with finely detailed left-hand figures. This marked the beginning of a Beethoven cycle; Oppens hopes that when it ends she will have recorded and played in public all of Beethoven's sonatas. At the same concert, she played for their first performance four études she and Northwestern had commissioned from Tobias Picker. As is typical of Oppens, she made clear from the outset what she hoped for from the composer.

We talked the day after her Carnegie Hall recital. A sandy-haired, slim, bouncy woman in her fifties, Oppens is both informal and gracious. There's nothing of the diva about her. The most interesting feature of her small apartment is a former bedroom refurbished to house her baby grand piano. The room has been carefully soundproofed, with a raised floor and a dropped ceiling. In one corner hang a few medals celebrating what she calls her slow-motion running: she keeps fit by jogging in Central Park. When she was building her music room, Oppens had a sound technician take measurements while Julius Hemphill, the avant-garde jazz player who for many years was a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, played his alto saxophone. The two lived together until Hemphill's death, of complications from diabetes, in 1995; the apartment's walls are covered with posters announcing Hemphill's concerts and tours, including performances of Long Tongues, the "saxophone opera" he wrote, for which Oppens played the piano. Oppens said over tea that she was feeling scattered, because of the effort of the previous night's concert, at which she also played a second Beethoven sonata and Rachmaninoff's Etudes Tableaux, Op. 33.

Oppens's mother, Edith, studied in Europe with the composer Anton Webern, a fact her daughter didn't know until she was in her late teens. "My parents didn't talk much about Europe. There was so much pain associated with it." (Jews, they fled Prague in 1938.) "On the other hand, my mother had an attitude that Schoenberg and Bartók and Webern were gods and heroes." Her parents created an atmosphere in which the investigation of contemporary music was encouraged: Oppens remembers going as a child to hear the Juilliard String Quartet give a lecture-demonstration of an Elliott Carter quartet. Though hostile to jazz, her mother had improvised in Webern's class. Ursula, before she was out of high school, went with friends to hear jazz pianists such as Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans.

During Oppens's summers at Aspen she studied piano and, with the other faculty brats, made a pest of herself: at concerts she and Lynn Harrell (the now renowned cellist) and Nina Totenberg (the journalist) and other kids were made to sit in the back of the hall, where their fidgeting attracted Notes less attention. Oppens seems to glow when talking about these summers. In one picture she showed me -- she looks about seven -- she is playing the cello ("terribly," she says), accompanied on piano by her father, Kurt, who wrote essays and books on music. Music was play, but it was also serious. Before she was in her teens, Oppens was studying with famous teachers, including Victor Babin, who "changed my life." She was the youngest student Babin had ever taught, and he approached her like an adult, asking her to memorize whole movements of music between lessons. She also studied with Leonard Shure, a Brahmsian whose phrasing she had to learn to evade when she started playing Elliott Carter.

Still, Oppens had not decided on a musical career. She studied literature and economics at Radcliffe -- literature, she says, because she read incessantly but forgot who wrote what. As a freshman, she heard Pierre Boulez lecture and Leon Kirchner conduct Stravinsky's Les Noces and Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître. Only after she enrolled at the Juilliard School did she decide to become a musician, although even then she wasn't sure what kind. In her first years there, she studied with one of the most famous piano teachers in the world, Rosina Lhévinne, but still she was "confused about what I was doing and whether I wanted to be a pianist or not."

At concerts of the Group for Contemporary Music, Oppens would hear pieces for the first, and in many cases the last, time, and she couldn't tell "whether they were good or bad or beautiful.'' It didn't matter. It was the way she was hearing, listening for the structure and meaning of new pieces, that seemed crucial -- not the criticisms of performances that she and her student friends habitually exchanged. The music, by Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Edgard Varèse, Boulez, and others, was challenging. These concerts changed the way Oppens listened to all music. Today she programs Beethoven with Picker, or Brahms with Elliott Carter, because she believes that an audience that has heard new music will hear the familiar more alertly.

Rosina Lhévinne encouraged Oppens to enter competitions, and when she won the Busoni competition, in Bolzano, Italy, in 1969, Oppens was in a quandary. She says now that she should have gone straight to Milan and "gotten management." Instead she came home to play a concert in Connecticut with the cellist Fred Sherry. After a few unhappy years as a traveling pianist who was unprepared to be on the road alone (it was especially lonely for a young woman, she says), she founded the new-music group Speculum Musicae with Sherry and the percussionist Richard Fitz. The "crazy but exciting" band, numbering from seven to ten members, recorded pieces by John Harbison, Rzewski, and Wuorinen, and was given, she says, to a highly impractical version of participatory democracy. Oppens played piano with the New York Philharmonic when Paul Jacobs, the orchestra's pianist, was unavailable; her solo career got a boost -- she thinks of it as an unexpected second chance -- when she received the Avery Fisher Career Grant, in 1976.

THE honors did not make Oppens complacent -- if anything, she challenged herself further. Interested in improvisation, she went in 1978 to the Creative Music Studio, in Woodstock, New York, where the avant-garde vibraphonist and pedagogue Karl Berger taught improvisation. She was terrified, she remembers -- too scared to play a note. Yet "he got to me." Five years later she commissioned Middle Passage from Anthony Davis, a composer-pianist who has recorded often as a jazz pianist and also wrote the opera X. Middle Passage is dedicated to the poet Robert Hayden, whose poem by the same name describes a voyage of slaves to this country. The piece was a breakthrough for Oppens, because its middle section demanded improvisation. Davis helped: "He said, 'Look at this material that's in the first part of the piece. Here's a theme: you can play it slower, you can play it faster, you can do it backwards or upside down, you can stretch it out.' I thought to myself, 'Oh! That's like the development section of Mozart.' I got it."

Oppens has worked closely with other composers as well. She is naturally an alert pianist, alert to structure as well as to line. But she is not, perhaps, so naturally a romantic. Tobias Picker is. When Picker was working with her on the Third Etude, he "tried to get me to play slower and more romantically ... to find that part of me," she says. "That's the harder thing for me, yes."

Hemphill and Oppens met in 1983 on a tour organized by the New York State Council on the Arts. A composer and a great blues player, Hemphill was fascinated by Carter's Night Fantasies, one of the works being played on the tour. "He was very interested in how far out you could take certain ideas," Oppens says. "I could not call it abstraction but how abstract-seeming the human voice can be." Although in their years together Hemphill and Oppens didn't talk about music very much, they listened to each other play and occasionally offered suggestions. Hemphill heard her play Conlon Nancarrow's Tango? and "got me to get it a little livelier," she says, "less stiff."

When Oppens looks at the pieces that have been written for her, she sees something of her own personality in the writing. That personality can be, she says, a bit "nutty," and also genially humorous. Many of the pieces, including Night Fantasies, Harbison's Piano Sonata No. 1, and Nancarrow's Two Canons for Ursula, have been issued on American Piano Music of Our Time (Music &Arts CD-862), which was recorded in two volumes in 1989 and 1991 and has since been reissued in a single package. Most of the many tangos in the set were written for the International Tango Collection, which was the idea of the pianist Yvar Mikhashoff. The various composers' doubts about the project are embedded in their works: Nancarrow's Tango?, for example, complicates and evades the tango rhythm from the start. William Bolcom's Dead Moth Tango begins with a downward run deep into the bass: evidently it is named after a moth that collapsed on the manuscript. Lukas Foss's The Curriculum Vitae Tango is more gently playful, but all the composers seem to have had fun -- even Hemphill, who apparently started writing his Parchment as a tango, although it turned into something of a blues. The rest of the music on the discs demonstrates the range of contemporary piano literature, as Oppens moves with aplomb from the tense colorfulness of Carter to the placid monochromaticism of John Adams, and from Rzewski's variations on the folk song "Mayn Yingele" to Picker's moody Old and Lost Rivers and Harbison's rigorous sonata.

Oppens has of course played these pieces for the composers; it has been helpful, she says, but the experience has not made her interpretations definitive. There is no point, she says, in slavishly trying for authenticity. She describes her experience with Carter's Night Fantasies as a revelation; like the other three pianists who commissioned the twenty-minute work (she was the first to perform it, in 1980), Oppens was coached by Carter himself. Carter is known for the precision of his markings: he told her that what he calls in his preface to the score "a loud, obsessive, periodic repetition of an emphatic chord" must create the loudest moments in the piece; he "demanded that I have a greater variety of touches than I would have had." Carter, she learned, has "many articulations ... so that the piano becomes as colorful as possible." The four pianists produced very different performances.

One of Oppens's most recent recordings is of the Joan Tower Piano Concerto (d'Note Classics DND 1016), a piece whose sometimes shimmering textures bring out her lyrical side. The recording reaffirms what an excellentensemble player Oppens is: evidently a delight Clefto work with. Years ago she suggested to Carter that he write her a piano quintet, because, she explains, "Every pianist just adores playing with string quartets." Carter declined: he felt that Brahms and Schumann had had the last say on the piano quintet. Then Carter and Oppens worked together in England during the recording by the Arditti Quartet of several pieces by Carter, including his fifth string quintet. Oppens played 90+, a sonata that Carter wrote as a birthday tribute to the Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi, who was born in 1904. Earlier Carter had called Oppens and asked her gleefully whether she had found the ninety notes that stick out of the texture, which he had impishly placed throughout the piece. Carter, Oppens, and the Ardittis had such a good time at the rehearsals and recording sessions that the composer revived the idea of the piano quintet. According to Oppens, Carter has been listening to Brahms's chamber music, and the premiere should take place at the Library of Congress this fall -- roughly at the time of Carter's ninetieth birthday. By then Oppens will be well into her Beethoven cycle, concerts at which she will pair the Hammerklavier with Carter's Piano Sonata and Beethoven's Waldstein with John Adams's Phrygian Gates. She doesn't know what the Carter quintet will be like. "You can't predict it. You can never predict how a piece will turn out. I can only imagine the last piece." She knows that it will be a major work, and that she will have had something to do with its composition. Mostly Oppens just wants to hear new music. "That," she says with typically wide-eyed enthusiasm, "is very exciting."


Michael Ullman teaches music and English at Tufts University. He is the author of
Jazz From Its Origin to the Present (1992).

Illustrations by Etienne Delessert

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; Saint Ursula; Volume 281, No. 5; pages 112 - 116.

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