Long considered a preeminent concert pianist, Ursula Oppens is adept both as a soloist and a chamber player, with a repertoire that stretches from Mozart to jazz composer Anthony Braxton. For more than 25 years she’s been on the road, averaging at least 50 engagements a season. But now she’s cut back her daunting schedule to become a music professor at Northwestern University.
“I’d been approached by a number of schools over the years, but this was an offer I just couldn’t refuse,” Oppens says. “I wanted to be in a university setting where students from other disciplines can take an interest in music.”
Oppens’s new position won’t put an end to her concert career, but touring no longer seems as important as when she was pegged as a promising newcomer and was expected to live up to the billing. She started off with a bang in 1969, when she won first prize in the prestigious Busoni International Piano Competition and then made her Carnegie Hall debut. Yet both honors represented the culmination of a long, thorough preparation for a life in the limelight. The daughter of a piano tuner and a renowned piano teacher, Oppens grew up in an intensely musical and intellectual household in New York City. She studied classical music with her mother, Edith Oppens, and later with Leonard Shure, a teacher with a formidable, almost intimidating reputation. “I was immersed in the Germanic repertoire, day in and day out,” she recalls. “My mother had been a student of Anton Webern, so we were very partial to the Viennese.” But her exposure to other 20th-century composers was limited. “They weren’t taken seriously by my parents’ crowd. I later came to believe that those musician friends were all miserable, restricted by their own taste to play the same stuff over and over again.”
Oppens’s ears were opened to contemporary music during her freshman year in college. “One of the strangest experiences I had was listening to [Pierre Boulez’s] Le marteau sans maitre for the first time,” she says with a chuckle. “It was filled with fascinating sounds and ideas. You see, being brought up as I was, I didn’t know how to listen to a piece for the first time. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart already were familiar to me even as a toddler. Then I participated in a performance of [Stravinsky’s] Les noces. It was quite a stretch for me. You know, the piano part is rather small but difficult. And it’s not a starring part. Playing as part of an ensemble was totally new to me also.”
While a student at Harvard, Oppens befriended composer John Harbison and his wife. “They invited me to play with their chamber group and introduced me to the chamber works of Bartok and Sessions, among others,” she says. “For the first time I found an area of music I could call my own and not my mother’s.” Struck by her dazzling command of technique and her willingness to experiment with the new, Harbison started writing pieces for her. Their partnership established a pattern in Oppens’s artistic life: “I tend to work closely with a composer. If I have questions about interpretation, I just call him or her up. I try to be part of the creative process.”
After graduating with a major in English literature and a minor in economics, Oppens returned to New York City to attend Juilliard. She hooked up with celebrated coach Rosina Lhevinne and prepped for a career as a soloist. Her 1969 debut garnered rave notices, but she found the concert circuit to be a grind. “I felt very lonely on the road,” she says. “I was in my 20s and I missed my boyfriend at home. I wasn’t at all psychologically prepared.”
Back in New York, Oppens cofounded with composer Joan Tower the new-music chamber ensemble Speculum Musicae in 1971. “I didn’t want to tour anymore, and I wanted to play with my friends music by people we admired,” Oppens says. “Since no one wanted to hire us, we decided to have a recital series of our own.”
In the ten years Oppens was a member of Speculum Musicae, the group premiered at least five new compositions a year, including commissioned works by Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen, two of Oppens’s steady collaborators. Though now perceived as a dedicated new-music advocate, Oppens didn’t neglect her roots. In her occasional solo stints–including her Chicago debut under the auspices of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977–she’d mix in a sonata or two by the old masters. Oppens won the Avery Fisher Prize in 1976, leading to an appearance with the New York Philharmonic. “I enjoyed the whole experience this time,” she says, “and I thought here was my second chance at a concert career. I must take it. I wasn’t as immature and afraid as before.”
With her rising reputation as a new-music interpreter, Oppens at first was asked by orchestras to perform the tough contemporary compositions that elude most pianists. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented the local premiere of Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto in 1992, Oppens did the honors to glowing reviews. But slowly she’s persuaded orchestras to let her tackle the classics, resulting in several career-boosting performances. “An artist is deprived of humanity if he’s forced to specialize,” she says. “Really, there’s no difference between playing brand-new pieces and old pieces. You learn them the same way.” Being privy to the thoughts of living composers has helped her understand the work of Beethoven. “I can try to figure out the technical and creative problems he confronted and the solutions he laid out for future interpreters. It allows for an unusual perspective.”
Oppens is currently planning to embark on a survey of Beethoven’s piano music. She recently heard the 32 sonatas interpreted by Richard Goode. “His were convincing,” she says. “Yet I think mine will be quite different–in sonority, in the analytical approach, in insight. They will reflect my personality, my background. And that’s what great art, old and new, ought to do.”
Two Beethoven sonatas–Opus 54 (no. 22) and Opus 111 (no. 32)–are on Oppens’s recital program this weekend at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, where she last performed in 1981. Another portion, as usual, will be devoted to recent pieces by her friends. Elliott Carter, Tobias Picker, and Joan Tower. The recital takes place tonight, Friday, at 7:30 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 1977 South Campus Drive in Evanston. Admission is $16, $13 for students and seniors; for tickets, call 708-491-5441.
Oppens will also perform with the Arditti String Quartet in a February 19 concert at the Athenaeum Theatre; call Performing Arts Chicago at 663-1628 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.