On a chilly afternoon in early January, the pianist Ursula Oppens was making an album at Brooklyn School.
At 79, Oppens is a bit fragile, tiny and stooped. However when she sat down on the piano — sneakers off, Weight loss program Coke on the ground — out got here taking part in of energy and technical aplomb.
More often than not, a minimum of. Oppens was setting down the primary recording of an early, unpublished sonata by the uncompromising modernist Charles Wuorinen, and, like a lot of Wuorinen’s music, it was treacherously thorny. She had been learning it, on and off, for a 12 months, nevertheless it was nonetheless gradual going.
“I performed a few appropriate notes,” she mentioned after an early take, “however not many.”
That form of modesty has been blended in with mastery all through Oppens’s lengthy, distinguished profession. With crystalline lucidity, heat sensitivity and utter authority, she has guided generations of listeners via the seductive complexities of Wuorinen and Elliott Carter, Anthony Davis and Conlon Nancarrow, Frederic Rzewski and Joan Tower, and on and on. She is “the queen of up to date music,” mentioned Tania León, one of many many composers who’ve written for her during the last 60 years.
Born on Feb. 2, 1944, Oppens will formally rejoice her eightieth birthday at Merkin Live performance Corridor in Manhattan on Saturday. However — once more, that modesty — this isn’t precisely an Ursula Oppens recital. She shall be joined by seven pianist colleagues in a live performance targeted much less on her than on the music she has helped convey into the world: eight items from her dizzying catalog.
“Most of those items have a minimum of entered a small repertory,” she mentioned in an interview at her condo on the Higher West Facet. “That’s what one hopes for. I don’t have youngsters, however with youngsters you nurture them, then hope they’ll go away and have their very own lives. That’s what I really feel very happy with, and completely happy about, with this music.”
For many who know Oppens, this self-effacement comes as no shock. Judith Sherman, the producer of the Wuorinen album, who has labored together with her for many years, mentioned: “I don’t recall her ever speaking about herself or her profession. If she talks about herself, it’s, ‘Am I failing the composer?’”
And that she very hardly ever does. “There’s the previous praise,” the composer Tobias Picker mentioned, “‘So-and-so performed a greater piece than the one I wrote.’ That’s a praise one might give Ursula. Her phrasing, her approach, her musicality — she’s an amazing artist.”
Oppens grew up in New York Metropolis, the kid of Jewish mother and father who fled Europe within the late Thirties. Each had been achieved musicians; her mom, a severe pedagogue, was her first piano instructor. “When she was pregnant,” Oppens mentioned, “she had a buddy come to observe the ‘Hammerklavier’” — the traditional Beethoven sonata — “so I might hear it whereas I used to be nonetheless within the womb.”
She got here to affiliate her mother and father with old-school approach and the canonical repertory, which she has at all times performed alongside the brand new. It was a lot later that she discovered that her mom had taken a category with Webern, the nice modernist, and that her father had been a member of the influential Worldwide Society for Up to date Music.
Oppens believes they could have related fashionable kinds with Europe and the struggle, and so didn’t need to share such issues together with her. “I don’t bear in mind any encouragement towards new music,” she mentioned.
However she was curious from early on. Her freshman 12 months at Radcliffe School, Pierre Boulez got here to campus for lectures and a live performance, and she or he was hooked. She performed in a pupil efficiency of Stravinsky’s “Les Noces”; she met the composer John Harbison, just a few years older, and commenced to play his music; she discovered Schoenberg’s Phantasy for violin and piano and the Bartok sonatas.
From the start, modernism and its descendants entranced Oppens. “I’ve at all times been intrigued by the strangeness of it,” she mentioned. “That kind of entices me. They’re adventures.”
Again in New York to check on the Juilliard Faculty within the mid-Sixties, she acquired to know Wuorinen, an essential ally when she and different younger musicians shaped Speculum Musicae in 1971. Mixing Twentieth-century requirements with items by each established and rising composers, the ensemble was a direct success, buoyed by Carter’s advocacy.
Oppens’s solo profession flourished too as she gained competitions and an Avery Fisher Profession Grant. For the nation’s bicentennial, she commissioned Rzewski’s labyrinthine set of variations on “The Individuals United Will By no means Be Defeated!,” which has grow to be as near a up to date traditional as there may be within the solo piano repertory.
She nonetheless performs that sprawling work, together with on a program of what she calls “my requirements,” which locations the Rzewski alongside Carter’s mischievous “Two Diversions” (1999) and his brooding, unsettled “Evening Fantasies” (1980).
Few pianists have mastered Carter’s dauntingly quicksilver idiom like she has. Steven Beck, a former pupil of Oppens’s who will play “Two Diversions” at Merkin, first knew of her from her recording of Carter’s Piano Concerto.
“She’s so attuned to the drama of it,” Beck mentioned in an interview. “The completely different characters of Carter’s music conversing collectively, typically arguing, even at struggle. She would say issues like, ‘On this half, the 2 palms ought to combat in opposition to one another; you must really feel that stress of them not agreeing.’ She humanized the technical issues that Carter does.”
Oppens turned recognized for her affiliation with Carter, Wuorinen and different composers who had been emblems of the so-called uptown modernist institution centered in college music departments, versus the much less institutionalized “downtown” of John Cage, the Minimalists and others. However even within the days when that distinction meant one thing, she was open-minded.
“One in all my first CDs had ‘Evening Fantasies’ and likewise John Adams’s ‘Phrygian Gates,’” she mentioned. “For many of my life it’s been a multiplicity of kinds.”
Picker mentioned that Oppens “was one of many solely ‘uptown’ new music musicians who was open to ‘downtown’ music,” including that she had premiered a bit by the Minimalist composer Tom Johnson. “It was not the form of factor we had been used to.”
Her talents at practically 80 had been examined by the Wuorinen recording, and the lengthy interval of preparation for it. “The eyesight goes, the fingers,” she mentioned. “The retention. It was that I acquired reminiscence after taking part in one thing two or 3 times; now it’s after 20 instances.”
However a minimum of one fee, a piano quintet by the 89-year-old avant-gardist Christian Wolff, remains to be pending. And whereas Oppens has made some compromises with age — she has retired the “Hammerklavier,” and made peace with by no means studying Ravel’s difficult “Gaspard de la Nuit” — she has no intention of retiring.
“I’ve very unhealthy hand-eye coordination,” she mentioned, “so I can’t play golf or tennis. However the keyboard stays the identical; it doesn’t transfer. So I’ll educate and play so long as I can nonetheless do it. Each minute that I’ve vitality, I observe.”