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Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal, photo by June Feng
Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal (photo by June Feng)

Concert Review: Avant-Garde Showcase Marks Ursula Oppens’ 80th Birthday

A bracing concert in New York City on Feb. 3 served as a loving tribute to pianist and contemporary-music champion Ursula Oppens as she turned 80.

Ursula Oppens and Friends

Still active, Oppens herself opened the Feb. 3 concert with a piece written for her in 1986, Tobias Picker’s piano version of his lyrical “Old and Lost Rivers.” Oppens later returned to close the concert with “12 Blocks” by Michael Stephen Brown in duet with Jerome Lowenthal. Scored for one piano, four hands, this delightful weirdness featured entwined arms, a mid-piece position switch, and poetry recited by both pianists.

In between, six other superb musicians performed piano works associated with Oppens by six other notable modern-day composers, among them several towering figures of 20th- and 21st-century music.

Oh, and champagne and birthday cake followed in the lobby.

If Picker’s pretty and accessible piece lulled a listener into any kind of reverie, “The Blue Bamboula” by Charles Wuorinen jolted them back to attention. Full of fire and fury, this rhythmically elastic tangle transpires in fragmented, miniature episodes. Carl Patrick Bolleia’s consistent energy and aesthetic touch resulted in an assured and convincing, indeed an emotionally striking, experience.

“Two Canons for Ursula” by Conlon Nancarrow exemplifies by its very title the important position Oppens has held in contemporary music. Known for his player-piano scores, the composer here created something wildly difficult for a live pianist: music with the left and right hands in two different time worlds. Han Chen met the challenge with yeomanlike bravura, and, as near as this listener could tell, precision.

Winging It

Matthew Griswold played three brief improvisations by John Corigliano. The composer notated them after the fact and collectively titled them “Winging It.” The first felt like a jazzy fanfare. The second was contemplative, searching, with a lovely first theme, and so focused it seemed through-composed. The third suggested a toccata or march.

“Two Diversions” by Elliott Carter may rank among the composer’s more accessible works. I think this comes, in the first case, from the steady pulse in the left hand underpinning the stichomythic right-hand gestures, and in the second, from the sense of flow – equivalent, as I think of it, to what you get in John Ashbery’s poems.

In fact, it’s one of Ashbery’s poems that gave the next piece its title: “Or like a…an Engine.” Pianist Ice Wang turned this Joan Tower perpetual-motion device into the concert’s biggest crowd-pleaser (not counting the presence of the honoree). Tower had dedicated it to Oppens, who premiered the WNYC commission in 1994 at Alice Tully Hall. It wasn’t too hard to picture Ursula Oppens’ fingers flying ghostly over the keyboard behind Wang’s, whose exciting performance was both technically impressive and somehow lyrical.

The percussive “Mistica” by Tania León also received its premiere by Ursula Oppens, back in 2003. Described as containing elements of Cuban musical styles, in Natasha Gwirceman’s hands it sounded at times harp-like, at times guitar-like, at times drum-like.

Oppens’ closing duet with Lowenthal was a fitting nightcap. The presence of two bodies on the bench working together in seamless creativity encapsulated the concert’s theme, “Ursula & Friends.” It signified the importance of community in the musical world of these eight composers (some of whom were present), these eight pianists, and the audiences that have supported them and their many infinitely creative colleagues over the past half-century.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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