Famous for championing adventurous contemporary American piano music, legendary pianist Ursula Oppens will make her Spivey Hall debut Sunday at 3 p.m., performing solo piano works by three important American composers.
“We love classical music, our Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn, but we are living in the 21st century,” says Robert Schnapper, who with his wife, Linda, is sponsoring Oppens’ recital. “We need to be exposed to the best of today’s classical music. We depend on artists to vet the composers, and she knows whose material is going to last.”
Oppens earned a master’s degree from Juilliard, then in 1968 won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, leading to her Carnegie Hall debut in 1969. That same year, she won first prize in the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition. She was one of the co-founders of Speculum Musicae, an esteemed American chamber ensemble devoted to modern classical music.
Oppens rapidly established herself as a performer unafraid to mix classics and contemporary works in the same concert. She is now recognized as one of the last half-century’s greatest champions of modern classical music. Her Spivey Hall program reflects her musical passions and the caliber of living composers she advocates in her performances.
John Corigliano’s “Winging It” is unusual in that he used a MIDI keyboard attached to a computer to turn his improvisations into standard notated music for Oppens to perform.
“Two Thoughts About the Piano,” by the 103-year-old Elliott Carter, written when he was in his 90s, is a pair of rather compendious nine-minute pieces: the tensely mercurial “Intermittences” followed by the anxiously toccata-like “Caténaires.” The composer has described the latter as “a fast one-line piece with no chords … a continuous chain of notes.”
Fredric Rzewski’s compelling set of 36 variations, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” was composed in 1975, two years after the Chilean socialist unity song that inspired it, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” Although a brilliant pianist himself, Rzewski wrote it for Oppens. Her recording is considered the benchmark for this 50-minute work, which rivals Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” in scope and stature.
These compositions represent the kind of intensive music in which Oppens has always reveled — music that would make most pianists cower. It demands at once energy and subtlety, muscular potency and poetry, and a sensibility that reaches beyond technical virtuosity to find the heart of the music even in its most extreme complexities.
But even though musical modernism at its most extreme, with its focus on innovations and linguistic plurality, has been around for well over a century, it still draws most of its modest audience from adventurous new-music connoisseurs or from young people intently challenging aesthetic barriers, rather than from mainstream classical music fans. Schnapper, however, is both enthusiastic and optimistic about having Oppens perform modern music at Spivey Hall. “As Beethoven once said of his own late music: this is not for now, but for the future.”