Ursula Oppens

5 questions to Ursula Oppens (pianist)

On Thursday, March 6 at 7:30 pm, Symphony Space will be hosting a concert in honor of the renowned American pianist Ursula Oppens on the occasion of her 70th birthday. Pianists Winston Choi, Ran Dank, Soyeon Kate Lee, and Anthony Molinaro—all former or current students of Oppens—will perform pieces that helped to define her legacy, such as Frederic Rzewski’s, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” and Conlon Nancarrow’s “Four Canons for Ursula,” along with other selections.

Ursula Oppens

Ursula Oppens

You are known for commissioning and collaborating with dozens of celebrated composers of our time. I know from my own experience that collaboration and the commissioning process are often also explorations of the musical relationship between performer and composer. Is there (or are there) a particular collaboration(s) that grew in an unexpected direction either, in the resulting work or in the musical relationship?

I am almost always surprised by the works that I have commissioned. Perhaps the greatest surprise was “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” by Frederic Rzewski. Not only because the work is almost one hour long, but especially because I had mainly heard Frederic in the improvisations of Musica Elletronica Viva, which were wildly atonal at that time, and here was a composition which in its first 12 variations goes through the circle of fifths, and then has two sections (12 variations) in D minor. But the essential situation is that I know the previous works of a composer, but cannot imagine the next one.

The concert March 6 at Symphony Space involves several of your prominent students, and is thus as much a testament to abilities as both a performer and a teacher. What does new music allow you to accomplish in the studio that older established repertoire might not?

I think that new music might have a less formidable performance history than some works that have been around for a longer time. But, again to mention “The People United” which will be performed on March 6, it has been performed by many pianists, and I feel that it is very much a classic.

In recent years, there has been an emergence of new venues, new models for ensembles, and new means for funding projects. Which of these do you see best allowing new talent to emerge? How do you see these affecting the future of collaboration and commissioning for both performers and composers in America?

I think the very best aspect of what is happening now is that there are so many spaces where young people can play their music, and I also see that the distinction between composer and performer seems to be blurring. This is a wonderful development! At a birthday concert for me in Chicago, Lisa Kaplan (the pianist of the eighth blackbird) performed a four-hand piece that she had written. It is a terrific piece.

In a previous interview, you were very candid about the amount of time it takes to learn new music. You specifically addressed tuplets against each other, I believe it was 7 against 5, requiring you to count slowly a common denominator of 35. Different kinds of new music offer different kinds of challenges. Can you say more about the kinds of challenges that excite you and bring out that desire to invest time in learning a new piece?

The first challenge is simply notation. The fun is not hearing a recording and trying to imitate it, but using the medium of notation to transfer one person’s imagination to another’s musical realization.

In previous interviews, you have commented both of on the wide variety of compositional styles in new music today, but have also commented on how, in new music, pieces often involve a wide variety of textures and timbres within a piece. I’m wondering if this focus on texture and timbre might not be the unifying ‘topic’ of new music composition today. Would you agree with that assessment? And why or why not?

I think the focus on texture and timbre is one of the aspects of composition today, but pitch and rhythm are far from absent. Different composers have very differing emphases. I once asked a Harvard graduate student how she determines her pitches, and she answered that the main issue is “getting to the pitch”. But this certainly would not be true for Charles Wuorinen.

Happy Birthday, Ursula!
Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space
Thu, Mar 6, 2014 7:30pm
$30; Members $24; Students $15