Ursula Oppens 75th Birthday Concert and Tribute

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Donald Isler
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Ursula Oppens 75th Birthday Concert and Tribute

Post by Donald Isler » Mon Feb 04, 2019 12:38 pm

Ursula Oppens 75th Birthday Concert and Tribute
Ursula Oppens, piano with the Cassatt String Quartet (Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins, Ah Ling Neu, viola and Elizabeth Anderson, cello)
Terrance McKnight, Host
Merkin Hall, New York City
February 2nd 2019

Three Works for Solo Piano Written for Ursula Oppens:
Tobias Picker: Ursula (2018) - World Premiere
John Corigliano: Winging It, III - 6/7/08
Elliott Carter: Two Diversions (1999)

Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F (1903)

Laura Kaminsky: Piano Quintet for Ursula (2018) - World Premiere

This event was quite a production. Entering the hall before the concert one heard recordings of various works, and tried to think of a unifying thread. Two pieces that I recognized were excerpts from Appalachian Spring of Aaron Copland and Excursions by Samuel Barber. The connection, later explained by host Terrance McKnight of radio station WQXR, was that these were all works composed in 1944, the year when Ursula Oppens was born.

Twice during the program McKnight sat onstage with Oppens, the three living composers whose works were being performed, and members of the Cassatt String Quartet. Topics discussed included, naturally, the music written for her, and the other musicians' relationships with her. (Everyone seems to love Ms. Oppens, an unpretentious woman who dressed simply in black pants and a black top, seemed to be having a wonderful time, and played marvelously.) At one point McKnight played a game with them called "How Well Do You Know Ursula?" which included questions about what years she won a competition, and several other things. It was quite amusing to learn later from McKnight that he got the answers from reading my interview with her last year!

Ursula (2018) by Tobias Picker is a bouncy work, witty and very complicated, with jazzy fragments playing off each other.

Winging It, by John Corigliano, the third movement of which Oppens played, starts with a rumbling in the bass, has syncopated rhythms and eruptions, and ends with a quasi-arpeggio which goes up into the treble region, sounding rather like a question mark.

Ursula Oppens has been playing music of Elliott Carter since 1966, as she told me last year, and frequently includes his music in her programs. The first of the two Carter Diversions is elegiac, with fragments in the treble. Later on it is recitativo-like, setting a mood to which one could imagine a narrative. The second piece features a leisurely left hand part against a frenetic right hand. The contrast between the two ramps up continuously, though in the end the piece seems to just float away.

When thinking about why Ursula Oppens is such a successful advocate for these works two reasons came to mind. First of all, she's a terrific pianist. As composer Laura Kaminsky said "She can play anything! She even finds meaning in my music that I wasn't aware of!" And second, she understands pacing. The music always moves along effectively, the momentum never lagging, even in slow sections.

The first half of the program closed with a fine performance by the Cassatt String Quartet of the Ravel String Quartet in F, now a much loved part of the standard repertoire, but we were told, not a universally well-received piece when it was new. The first movement had a warm and gentle opening, followed by the bittersweet second theme and, later, an intimate duo between the first violin and the viola. The second movement seemed just a bit slow, to this listener, but was dreamy and exotic. The third movement was appropriately slow and intense, and featured some particularly fine playing by the violist, Ah Ling Neu. The finale had fiery intensity as well as mischievous charm.

The second half of the program featured Laura Kaminsky's Piano Quintet For Ursula, played by Ms. Oppens and the Cassatt Quartet. The movements are marked:
1) anthem
2) lamentation; coming into light
3) malestron, and...

The first movement has playful thirds, seemed quasi-minimalist, was lively, and ended in an excited state. The second movement begins with a slow, serious and anguished piano solo. Later on there is a quasi-cadenza for the piano played against chords in the strings. In the third movement there are blotchy-sounding chords against a sparse melody in the strings. There is great tension with unresolved harmonies, though in the end there is calm, as the work concludes on what sounds, to this listener, like a quiet C major chord.

The concert was followed by a full house singing Happy Birthday to Ursula Oppens, after which everyone adjourned to the lobby to continue the celebration with cake and beverages.

Donald Isler
Donald Isler

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