There is no more intrepid a performer than the solo pianist in recital; responsible, with 88 keys, for holding the ears of the audience captive at a two-hour stretch. Consider also the contemporizing of piano literature: no other instrument has such a towering solo pedigree, dominated by such figures as Beethoven and Lizst, and it is interesting to see how twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers have responded to their inheritance. On Tuesday night, June 21, attendees of the second SCIPP concert of the week were treated to a recital by Ursula Oppens, a pianist who is not only an expert soloist, but one specializing in the sort of monumental contemporary masterwork that is one answer to the “where now?” question.
From the beginning, Oppens looked completely at home on the Jordan Hall stage, her grin visible from my seat near the back. Her first selection was John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy, which despite its somewhat pedagogic description (the program notes provided Corigliano’s explanation of the five etudes and their objectives, which Oppens also summarized before beginning) was engaging and often dramatic. It began with left hand alone in increasing flourishes, an impressive display of dexterity, and continued through a variety of temperaments from stentorian to wistful. My favorite (and here is why I love program notes, because how else would I have thought of this totally apt descriptor?) was the section Corigliano marks “slithery,” which involved stealthy ripples of chromaticism from both ends of the register, just one of the many textures Oppens was able to evoke over the short course of the piece.
Her second selection was Charles Wuorinen’s Oros, a 2009 commission, which struck me as virtuosic but abstruse. In contrast to the Corigliano, no description of form or purpose was given. Perhaps a description was unnecessary to the appreciation of sound and energy, but it did leave me with several false and rather disconcerting expectations of an ending. The piece was largely composed of the sort of scattershot outbursts that seem to be the new-music equivalent of arpeggiated flourishes; through this rigorous texture, occasional stark oom-pahs, rumbling trills, and a memorable recurrence of rising fifths came as welcome relief.
The greatly anticipated piece on the program, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, came after intermission. Upon experience, I understood why it is the sort of piece that figures prominently in a performer’s bio. (Monday night’s pianists Drury and Hamm both have existing or upcoming recordings, and Oppens, in addition to commissioning and giving the premier in 1976, has her own Grammy-nominated recording). Massive technically and emotionally, and fraught with connotation, one can approach it from many angles but perhaps fully appreciate it from none. Its genesis is in Pinochet-era Chile with a street-singer’s chant, set to music by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega and expanded upon by Rzewski to a set of 36 variations mixed with quotations of two other twentieth-century political songs and an improvised cadenza. In his explanation, Rzewski further parses the variations into sets of examinations of different musical elements such as rhythm, melody, and counterpoint; however these distinctions, as well as the sequence of the specific variations, are easily lost on the non-connoisseur.
Luckily the power and grace of Oppens’s performance was lost on very few, as evidenced by the rapt attention and sincere ovation given at the conclusion. Her stamina and fortitude carried from the blustery opening statement through many twists and turns, as intense in the melancholy of a simply stated melody over ostinato bass as in outbursts of violence. Of the optional additions, Oppens displayed some very haunting whistling, but did not engage in slamming the piano lid. Her final rendition of the theme was moving and profound. A fellow concertgoer speculated that Rzewski, like Ives, is one of the rare composers able to integrate folk and popular music into concretized classical music to the enhancement of both, and I did indeed feel the snippets of the original catchy tune that emerged from Oppens’s pyrotechnics to be especially poignant — and sure to be echoing in my head for some time.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.