5 Questions to Ursula Oppens (pianist) on her 75th Birthday

You can’t tread very far into the world contemporary classical music without coming across legendary pianist Ursula Oppens. Her wide-reaching commissioning efforts have produced not just a high volume of works, but keystones of the modern piano repertoire by composers such as John Adams, Elliott Carter, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Joan Tower, and Charles Wuorinen, to name a few. On Saturday, February 2, 2019, Oppens comes to Merkin Hall for a 75th Birthday Tribute concert hosted by WQXR’s Terrance McKnight. The evening features works by composers with whom she has had a longstanding partnership, such as Elliott Carter, John Corigliano, and Tobias Picker (world premiere). The program also features Ravel’s String Quartet and a piano quintet by Laura Kaminsky (world premiere), for which the Cassatt String Quartet joins Oppens.

This even isn’t just any concert, but a 75th Birthday Tribute! What is it like to have worked with some composers and repertoire for so long?

Longer is better.

I have been fortunate to be involved with the music of Elliott Carter my entire adult life. I first heard the Juilliard String Quartet give a lecture-demonstration on the 2nd String Quartet in 1961, when I had just finished high school, and jumped at the chance to learn and perform his Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord in 1966. I feel that I learned how to read and play all music by learning his music. I am forever grateful to him and his wife Helen for making my life as wonderful as it has been.

Although I have always known the music of John Corigliano, I first became intimately acquainted with it by teaching several of his works. Playing his music, and working with John has been extraordinarily inspiring, and I have realized what unexpected benefits one receives from one’s students.

Ursula Oppens and Elliott Carter

Ursula Oppens and Elliott Carter–Photo by M. Addey

Tell us a little about the pieces by Tobias Parker and Laura Kaminsky that you will premiere at this event.

Tobias’ piece is short and full of energy. He is writing a series of birthday pieces as a number of his friends are, well, getting older. The theme on which “Ursula” is based is the beginning of the very   first solo work that he wrote for me, When Soft Voices Die (1977). This is not the first birthday piece he has written for me: on Feb 2, 1986, the piano version of Old and Lost Rivers showed up on my doorstep.

Laura’s is also something I could never have imagined–I only know her last pieces, but cannot imagine the next one. We are still finding out about it, as we not only try to play the right notes in the right places, but experiment with different sounds and characters. We sort of played two movements of it for her in November, when we were still beginning to learn it, and will play the whole piece (an astonishingly difficult last movement arrived on Dec 29!) on the 24th. Both the quartet and I have worked quite a bit with Laura before, and it is always a thrilling experience.

We owe a lot of the modern classical piano repertoire to your prolific commissioning activity. How do you view the role of the performer in cultivating the lives of new works past their premieres?

I am always happiest when other pianists play works that were written for me. The true test of a work is not its premiere but its subsequent performances, and some works, for instance The People United Will Never Be Defeated! by Frederic Rzewski, have been performed worldwide and recorded by very many major pianists.

Ursula Oppens and Tobias Picker

Ursula Oppens and Tobias Picker

Your programs often feature both standard and contemporary repertoire. How has studying and performing older works informed your performance of contemporary works, and vice-versa?

I can think of very few composers whose music is not thoroughly informed by music of the past, even if the response is to want to defy it. I think of John Cage’s determination to be as unlike Beethoven as possible.

As for the performer, trying to understand the sounds of a brand new piece when all you have are the notes on the page teaches one to look at a score of an older work much more carefully. Other people’s performances can be very inspiring, but it is essential to delve beyond what you hear.

What musical or other ventures are you most looking forward to beyond your 75th?

I hope to be able to keep doing what I am doing for as long as I am able.