If there were a dollar for every note heard last night at Ursula Oppens’s recital, it very well could have given a noticeable boost to our sagging economy. It is also possible that every one of the 88 notes of the piano came into play in what seemed to be a gazillion different ways. “Music of the 21st Century” was a judiciously planned program by one of the long-time reigning stars of contemporary music. At 65, Ursula Oppens, who has devoted her life to new music, is still going strong as ever, making treacherous compositions for her instrument seem easy play while breathing life into each and every one them.
Unflinching sureness, a hallmark of her playing, combined with an unassuming nature that can be deceptive; her total attention is given to the composer’s work. All of this, in turn, rubs off on her audience who cannot help but pay full attention — no easy accomplishment when dealing with the extraordinary demands of New Music imposed on both performer and listener.
In characterizing her piano art further, one cannot deny its adventurousness. Hers is a full-bodied sound with a high degree of purity. I still wonder, though, how she had me — and others — in the palm of her hands. Could it also have been her absolute loyalty to the six composers on the program, three of whom had written pieces especially for her? Perhaps it was her passion for jagged rhythms, which she intuitively rounded off, battered sound clusters, which she completely beautified, and the restless time and space shifts to which she brought incredible continuity.
As current Blodgett Distinguished Artist, Oppens presented American music composed within a five-year span between 2004 and 2009. The recital was given at the John Knowles Paine Concert Hall at Harvard University, on April 1. But why so few in attendance for this event? Were this an initial indoctrination to our recent American music for the curious and hopeful I would hazard a guess that it might also be the last, at least, for the majority.
John Corigliano with his movie scores, William Bolcom with his boundary-jumping over into ragtime and jazz, and even Tobias Picker with his reachable operas, here, in their solo piano pieces composed for Oppens, showed up in garb more often befitting the mid-2oth-century European triumvirate of the serialists, Boulez, Berio and Stockhausen. Charles Wuorinen, especially, took on the sound of over a half century past, doing so once again with intellectualism in a long and tedious one-movement work, Oros, which Oppens performed for the first time. Elliot Carter showed up as the brightest, most intelligent of the refashioned bunch.
Another American composer, Amy Williams, took other paths in “a diverse trio of pieces.” Astoria hovered over the high end of the piano in a textural play with an underpinning of musical scales, of all things. The two other movements changed textures, continuing to play off scales, appealing only for a while. There was more surface than depth, something you might like to experience less of from the other composers who just could not get enough “depth.”
And in the spirit of 1950s, much of this music did not dare to commit to feeling, to humanism. Some exceptions came in Corigliano’s Winging It, where potentially nasty little sound clusters verged on the humorous. The third of Three Nocturnes for Ursula by Picker took to an idiosyncratic, jerky-type rhythm which became more and more attractive in an odd, folksy kind of way. Harmony, modulation, and other reminiscences of the 19th century did not at all suggest serialism’s ways. Still in all, there was an overall obfuscation reminiscent of this period.
Carter’s long Intermittences from Two Thoughts About the Piano, as with Wuorinen and Bolcom, questioned without answering, but in a more declarative tone. With Caténaires, Carter worked out a version of perpetual motion. Oppens left us breathless and in awe through her unremitting near inhuman speed and third rail power.
Elliott Carter once said that jazz, in contrast to classical music, was a “discursive” music. Funny, but these composers’ music came across to me as real talkers. At the hands of Ursula Oppens none of the sounds at Paine Hall were painful, not even unpleasant in the least. I was intrigued the entire evening, though ultimately what it all meant I am at a loss for words.