Ursula Oppens – Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Artistry that Runs in the Blood

Pianist Ursula Oppens and the Jack String Quartet provided insightful performances of music by two outstanding American-born composers – Conlon Nancarrow and Charles Wuorinen – at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC this past Sunday. This was some of the most intriguing music I’ve heard live in some time – the kind that takes some time and thought to process, and conjures up words like ingenuity and one of a kind. While on one level Nancarrow and Wuorinen’s compositions are different as night and day, both possess an incredible clarity that makes all their complexities seem natural, coherent, and enticing.

Nancarrow is best known for his player piano scrolls of immense rhythmic complexity and speed not possible for human performers. This achievement was the result of an incredible musical mind being exiled from the US for his participation in the Abraham Lincoln brigades (American communists fighting Franco during the Spanish Civil War). Stuck in Mexico, Nancarrow made the best of his situation and emerged as certainly one of the most unique among composers of the 20th century, and one whom we are only beginning to catch up with. While his refusal to repent for siding with the communists in the 1930s meant he could never live in the US again, Nancarrow did begin making more connections with American musicians in the 70s and 80s. His Two Canons for Ursula is one of the results, and was performed expertly by Oppens Sunday night.

Ursula Oppens – Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Harking back to what I said earlier about Nancarrow reaching beyond the limits of human performance, Urula Oppens is perhaps the perfect pianist to execute his works. Someone once described her to me as being able to think in different meters at the same time, and the ease and perfection with which she handled Nancarrow’s Two Canons justifies this observation. Nancarrow’s music requires tremendous clarity, and Oppens executed with rhythmic precision and melodic detail. The Two Canons began in the left hand and walked through different areas of rhythmic density, playfulness, tone clusters, and reaching moments of melodic intensity. Oppens’ tone seemed just right for the music, and though there were contrasts in dynamics and intensity, nothing ever went over the top (and bringing out such subtleties can be quite difficult at LPR, where there’s always a bit of background noise and the acoustics never seem quite right).

Conlon Nancarrow

Nancarrow’s String Quartet No. 3 was performed by the Jack Quartet. Like the Two Canons, there were clear entrances of musical subjects, often in the cello, and a building up of texture as the other players entered. One of the most noteworthy features of this piece was the almost complete lack of vibrato. For most of the time the quartet played with either straight tones or plucked their strings. This was a completely different string quartet sound than anything I’ve ever heard. Nancarrow utilized the instruments in his own eccentric way, and the musical language had something of Henry Cowell in it. While the parts often seemed to go in disparate directions, there was a coherence to the piece as a whole generated by the clear motivic ideas and exploration of texture. Far from being overly cerebral, musical expression grew out of gesture and rhythm rather than lyricism. The Jack Quartet executed this rather difficult and quirky piece with a lot of precision and excitement, though without the same sense of living with the music as Ursula Oppens. To be fair, they are a young ensemble with a massive repertoire list doing exciting new things in concert halls around the world. I certainly loved the opportunity to hear them perform music that virtually no one else does (or could), but I sometimes worry that as conservatories churn out more and more technical mastery, some of the deep connection one forges with music through time and specialization is lost in the huge repertoire lists of many up-and-coming performers.

JACK Quartet. Photo credit: Stephen Poff.

JACK Quartet. Photo credit: Stephen Poff.

Where Nancarrow is a total oddball, Wuorinen is one of the most masterful at the craft of composition in the last half-century. While he’s often roped in with 20th century serialism, his music possesses an excellent sense of phrasing, lyricism, coherent motives, and a feeling of inevitability in its structures. His Oros, written for Ursula Oppens in 2009, was an exemplification of these qualities. The textures were far less dense than a lot of highly dissonant music, and as such one could take in the sonorities as they were given to the audience by Oppens with a great tone and touch. The clear sense of melodic line gave a forward motion to the piece, and the flutters of sixteenth notes and chordal passages provided contrast and excitement to the structure. It was impressive how restrained the music felt while at the same time drawing you in – there was no need for full on fortes to provide a sense of climax, and the ending just seemed to make perfect sense.

Urula Oppens was joined by the Jack Quartet for a NYC premiere performance of Wuorinen’s Piano Quintet. This for me was the highlight of the evening – the second movement in particular got under my skin. The austere dissonant sonorities in the strings just seemed to work perfectly as a progression. The piano’s climbing melodies built up a sense of anticipation, and a burst of rapid notes in the piano gave way to beautiful lyrical motives traded around the strings. Different textures were explored to great effect, from pointed pizzicato accents to the viola and cello bending pitches in dissonance with one another. While the balance between the instruments seemed a little off (microphones and speakers just never seem to work as well as wood and strings), the interaction between piano and strings was intriguing and coherent. Wuorinen’s sense of restraint was on display in this piece, with the music taking its time to unfold and without any reliance on overly dramatic high points or bombastic dynamics. If Wuorinen’s Piano Quintet is performed again in NYC, I’ll be sure to be there.

Charles Wuorinen – Photo by Nina Roberts

What struck me most about this concert in particular was the sense of musical maturity. While I’m all for hearing young composers and performers, often times I leave those concerts feeling like I heard something a bit shallow. As many younger musicians try and “connect” new art music to wider and younger audiences, the results can be too much hype and gimmicks. A few days ago I was listening to KRS-1, one of the few rappers whose output spans nearly three decades. His 1997 single “Step into a World (Rapture’s Delight)” is a good reminder that real artistry runs in your blood and that no matter what the time or context, great art will always have something to say. This was the feeling I got from Sunday’s concert. Ursula Oppens has spent decades performing new music and has forged working connections with some of the most important composers around. Her playing reflects this sense of investment in the music, and her experience and expertise ring out of the piano. Wuorinen’s craftsmanship is of such a high caliber that his music always conveys its point without any excesses. Nancarrow’s unique voice is a reminder that some of the best art is made when an innovative mind is stuck in semi-isolation but can’t stop its creativity, instead bringing it into sharper focus. With our short-attention spans, the world at our fingertips, and with everything over-hyped (and over-blogged about), sometimes we forget that it takes time to make something that will last.

David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.