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With Her, New and Old Get Equal Time

Pianist Ursula Oppens champions experimental work even as she programs standard repertory.

February 25, 2001|JOSEF WOODARD | Josef Woodard is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When last the Southland caught sight and sound of Ursula Oppens, she was wired.

Last October, as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival in Costa Mesa, Oppens harnessed her beloved piano to the power of digital manipulation and customized computer software written by composer Richard Teitelbaum. Her playing was filtered, via MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), through a computer, affecting the behavior of a phantom duet "partner" on Disklavier (a computerized player piano).

"I'd like to develop it further," Oppens says of her recent MIDI encounter. Even so, she admits that "most of my interests are still in playing the piano on the keys, in the regular old-fashioned way."

That "old-fashioned way" will be Oppens' operative mode when she lands at USC this week to play a Beethoven-meets-contemporary-music recital on Monday night and to appear as soloist with the Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble on Thursday. That program includes Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (with Los Angeles' own new-music champion, Vicki Ray, on the other keyboard), and a new piece by noted Chinese emigre composer Chen Yi.

Which of her roles represents the real Oppens? Either and both. By this point, Oppens has to be considered one of America's most well-rounded virtuosos. She has played more standard repertory in recent years, yet she also maintains her affection for experimentation, which led her to co-found, in the early '70s, the influential new-music group Speculum Musicae.

Her recital program Monday will interweave Beethoven sonatas and contemporary pieces without apology. Living composers important to Oppens' musical life will be featured: As well as Chen Yi, there will be the oft-touted "dean of American composers," Elliott Carter, and pianist-composer Frederic Rzewski, whose 1975 piece "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" won Oppens one of her two Grammy nominations.

The program will include works by these composers that were part of an Oppens project, the "Carnegie Hall Millennial Piano Book," which commissioned short pieces from 10 prominent composers. Oppens premiered them last spring, and music publisher Boosey & Hawkes released a book with CD late last year.

Oppens has also maintained an academic roost since 1995, when she became the John Evans Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University near Chicago, to which she commutes from her home in Manhattan. Oppens says she's "really happy with the balance" in her musical life. "There's a lot of playing, some teaching, too much airplane travel. But aside from that, it's great."

Question: It almost seemed predestined that you'd get into music. But you decided to study literature and economics at Radcliffe before plunging into music at Juilliard. Were you bucking expectation?

Answer: Yes. Both my parents are musicians, they were very grounded in classical music and yet involved in 20th century music. But exactly for that reason, when I was 17 and people asked me what I wanted to do, I'd say, "I don't know, but I'm certain I don't want to be a musician."

Q: A byproduct of adolescence?

A: Or a need to find some space for myself. And I'm very happy I studied other things in college. Northwestern [also] encourages people to do that. It's an academic university with a school of music. I come across a lot of people who are studying two things. I'm very much for it.

Q: Was there a particular point when it became obvious to you that music would, in fact, be your life?

A: It was in the late '60s and early '70s; there were a couple of things, like winning the Busoni [International Piano] competition [in 1969]. It was also founding Speculum Musicae. I think it was not only doing new music, but also having a group where we were trying to make every aspect of the concert situation happen, not be passive and hope that somebody else would hire you. We wanted to create the concerts, to put them on. That was very, very exciting.

Q: The 1970s were an exciting, transitional time for new music in New York. Did you sense a cultural birth, or rebirth, going on?

A: The '70s in New York City was a wonderful time. One exciting thing was that we could do it. We could form a group and people would come. Actually, it's still happening. There is the eighth blackbird [a contemporary music ensemble in Manhattan], for instance. They're young and starting, and playing all over the place, and people seem to love them. It always happens. One always thinks, 'It was that period, or some other golden age,' but it might just be around the corner too.

Q: You're playing a Rzewski piece at your USC recital. How far back do you go with his music?

A: I met him in 1974, when we were panelists for the New York State Council of the Arts. I'd heard a great deal about him before that, but I hadn't really heard him, either as a pianist or as a composer. But I then got to know both sides of him, and heard Musica Elettronica Viva [an improvisational ensemble Rzewski was part of] a lot.

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