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Spanning the Centuries

New York
04/16/2023 -  
Franz Schubert: Impromptu in B Flat Major, Opus 142, D. 935 No. 3 – Four Impromptus, Opus 90, D. 899
Frederick Rzewski: Rondo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo in A Minor, K. 511

Ursula Oppens (Pianist)

U. Oppens

I have never been a member of the Communist Party. I am a musician, I only have opinions. I basically try to write good music. But when things are happening in the world, that’s where your ideas come from.
Frederick Rzewski

Lazy (and/or foolish) music journalists award the adjective “legendary” to Ursula Oppens. This is nonsense. Legends are myths. Nothing is mythical about Ursula Oppens. She is a living, breathing, charming, iconoclastic musician. And audiences know that.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, they (and I) paraded across various bridges to Brooklyn, stepped into the floating barge and packed that auditorium solid, to hear an hour of Ursula Oppens in a typical (a word as dumb as “legendary”) recital of old and new. Schubert, Mozart and the late Frederick Rzewski.

True, Ms Oppens’ name is associated with Rzewski, having given several of his pieces world premieres. Including the viciously difficult variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated. But her premieres have spanned the entire spectrum for more than half a century. Think of piano works by Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Joan Tower, Luciano Berio, John Adams, Győrgy Ligeti and...

And the list goes on and on. Yet Ms Oppens hardly confines herself to the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, her relationship of past and present is a symbiotic one. And yesterday, that reenforcement took a particularly quirky turn. Specifically with Rzewski and Mozart.

Mozart had written his A Minor Rondo with a plethora of dynamics, fingering, turns twists. At first, it seems almost forlorn, its chromatic opening like a kind of despair. Rzewski wrote his own Rondo–like Mozart–two years before his death. And in fact, he noted how he was inspired by remembering how his piano teacher forced him to play the Mozart rondo.

How did these two turn out? Ms Oppens played the Mozart without an embarrassment of tears. After all, she as a performer knows that Mozart’s corporeal problems were only dubiously reflected in his incorporeal inspiration. Thus, when those opening figures were gone, she played it with a slow-dance rhythm, a pavane rather than a pathos.

Mr. Rzewski didn’t take Mozart literally, though his first jumping notes could have been written in the 18th Century. After that, the composer wrote almost a naive, almost improvisatory Rondo, its jumping opening working as the link. The result was a typically challenging music, yet–thanks for Ms Oppens’ playing–a work of fluidity, even grace.

The recital started and ended with Schubert Impromptus. The four Opus 90 Impromptus were hardly faultless. Ms Oppens played them with her usual grace–even adding her own one‑measure arpeggio between each. Her fingering was not quite up to par here, unlike the B Flat Impromptu variations, played with Ms Oppens’ mind firmly on Schubert’s delights.

CODA: Those of us who have affection for Ms Oppens will have a rare chance to hear her on May 6, at Merkin Concert Hall. There she will join Conrad Tao, Lisa Moore, and others in a marathon tribute to Frederic Rzewski, both at 3:00, 5:30 and 8:00 pm. Should the Steinway strings withstand the powerful fingers, it could be an unforgettable occasion.

Harry Rolnick



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