On a chilly afternoon in early January, the pianist Ursula Oppens was making an album at Brooklyn School.
At 79, Oppens is a little bit fragile, tiny and stooped. However when she sat down on the piano — sneakers off, Weight-reduction plan Coke on the ground — out got here enjoying of energy and technical aplomb.
More often than not, no less than. Oppens was setting down the primary recording of an early, unpublished sonata by the uncompromising modernist Charles Wuorinen, and, like a lot of Wuorinen’s music, it was treacherously thorny. She had been finding out it, on and off, for a yr, nevertheless it was nonetheless gradual going.
“I performed a few right notes,” she stated after an early take, “however not many.”
That type of modesty has been blended in with mastery all through Oppens’s lengthy, distinguished profession. With crystalline lucidity, heat sensitivity and utter authority, she has guided generations of listeners by way of the seductive complexities of Wuorinen and Elliott Carter, Anthony Davis and Conlon Nancarrow, Frederic Rzewski and Joan Tower, and on and on. She is “the queen of latest music,” stated Tania León, one of many many composers who’ve written for her over the past 60 years.
Born on Feb. 2, 1944, Oppens will formally have a good time her eightieth birthday at Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan on Saturday. However — once more, that modesty — this isn’t precisely an Ursula Oppens recital. She might be joined by seven pianist colleagues in a live performance targeted much less on her than on the music she has helped convey into the world: eight items from her dizzying catalog.
“Most of those items have no less than entered a small repertory,” she stated in an interview at her residence on the Higher West Aspect. “That’s what one hopes for. I don’t have youngsters, however with youngsters you nurture them, then hope they’ll go away and have their very own lives. That’s what I really feel very pleased with, and pleased about, with this music.”
For individuals who know Oppens, this self-effacement comes as no shock. Judith Sherman, the producer of the Wuorinen album, who has labored along with her for many years, stated: “I don’t recall her ever speaking about herself or her profession. If she talks about herself, it’s, ‘Am I failing the composer?’”
And that she very not often does. “There’s the outdated praise,” the composer Tobias Picker stated, “‘So-and-so performed a greater piece than the one I wrote.’ That’s a praise one might give Ursula. Her phrasing, her method, her musicality — she’s a terrific artist.”
Oppens grew up in New York Metropolis, the kid of Jewish dad and mom who fled Europe within the late Nineteen Thirties. Each had been completed musicians; her mom, a severe pedagogue, was her first piano instructor. “When she was pregnant,” Oppens stated, “she had a pal come to apply the ‘Hammerklavier’” — the basic Beethoven sonata — “so I’d hear it whereas I used to be nonetheless within the womb.”
She got here to affiliate her dad and mom with old-school method and the canonical repertory, which she has at all times performed alongside the brand new. It was a lot later that she discovered that her mom had taken a category with Webern, the nice modernist, and that her father had been a member of the influential Worldwide Society for Up to date Music.
Oppens believes they could have related trendy kinds with Europe and the warfare, and so didn’t wish to share such issues along with her. “I don’t keep in mind any encouragement towards new music,” she stated.
However she was curious from early on. Her freshman yr at Radcliffe School, Pierre Boulez got here to campus for lectures and a live performance, and he or she was hooked. She performed in a scholar efficiency of Stravinsky’s “Les Noces”; she met the composer John Harbison, a couple of years older, and commenced to play his music; she discovered Schoenberg’s Phantasy for violin and piano and the Bartok sonatas.
From the start, modernism and its descendants entranced Oppens. “I’ve at all times been intrigued by the strangeness of it,” she stated. “That form of entices me. They’re adventures.”
Again in New York to check on the Juilliard Faculty within the mid-Nineteen Sixties, she obtained to know Wuorinen, an necessary ally when she and different younger musicians fashioned Speculum Musicae in 1971. Mixing Twentieth-century requirements with items by each established and rising composers, the ensemble was a right away success, buoyed by Carter’s advocacy.
Oppens’s solo profession flourished too as she received competitions and an Avery Fisher Profession Grant. For the nation’s bicentennial, she commissioned Rzewski’s labyrinthine set of variations on “The Individuals United Will By no means Be Defeated!,” which has grow to be as near a recent basic as there’s within the solo piano repertory.
She nonetheless performs that sprawling work, together with on a program of what she calls “my requirements,” which locations the Rzewski alongside Carter’s mischievous “Two Diversions” (1999) and his brooding, unsettled “Night time Fantasies” (1980).
Few pianists have mastered Carter’s dauntingly quicksilver idiom like she has. Steven Beck, a former scholar of Oppens’s who will play “Two Diversions” at Merkin, first knew of her from her recording of Carter’s Piano Concerto.
“She’s so attuned to the drama of it,” Beck stated in an interview. “The completely different characters of Carter’s music conversing collectively, generally arguing, even at warfare. She would say issues like, ‘On this half, the 2 arms ought to battle towards one another; it is best to really feel that stress of them not agreeing.’ She humanized the technical issues that Carter does.”
Oppens turned recognized for her affiliation with Carter, Wuorinen and different composers who had been emblems of the so-called uptown modernist institution centered in college music departments, versus the much less institutionalized “downtown” of John Cage, the Minimalists and others. However even within the days when that distinction meant one thing, she was open-minded.
“One in every of my first CDs had ‘Night time Fantasies’ and in addition John Adams’s ‘Phrygian Gates,’” she stated. “For many of my life it’s been a multiplicity of kinds.”
Picker stated that Oppens “was one of many solely ‘uptown’ new music musicians who was open to ‘downtown’ music,” including that she had premiered a chunk by the Minimalist composer Tom Johnson. “It was not the type of factor we had been used to.”
Her skills at practically 80 had been examined by the Wuorinen recording, and the lengthy interval of preparation for it. “The eyesight goes, the fingers,” she stated. “The retention. It was once that I obtained reminiscence after enjoying one thing two or 3 times; now it’s after 20 occasions.”
However no less than one fee, a piano quintet by the 89-year-old avant-gardist Christian Wolff, remains to be pending. And whereas Oppens has made some compromises with age — she has retired the “Hammerklavier,” and made peace with by no means studying Ravel’s difficult “Gaspard de la Nuit” — she has no intention of retiring.
“I’ve very unhealthy hand-eye coordination,” she stated, “so I can’t play golf or tennis. However the keyboard stays the identical; it doesn’t transfer. So I’ll educate and play so long as I can nonetheless do it. Each minute that I’ve vitality, I apply.”