Groomed as a traditional concert pianist, the Harvard-educated Ursula Oppens rebelled, deciding instead to champion a wide range of contemporary music, and it was only in the late 80s that she returned in earnest to the standard classical repertoire and venues. Her experience in both arenas has made her an eloquent interpreter who can make hoary classics sound new and give weight to brand-new compositions. It helps, of course, that Oppens is a superbly nimble technician who’s able to execute with equal ease and conviction, say, the subtle trills in Beethoven’s late sonatas and the pyrotechnics of Rachmaninoff’s keyboard writings. Indeed, both Beethoven and Rachmaninoff are on the program, which marks the beginning of Oppens’s traversal of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (a milestone project that will take three years) as well as the end of the centennial festivities at the Northwestern School of Music. Characteristically, Oppens has chosen to tackle first the most daunting of the set, number 29, which lives up to its nickname, Hammerklavier. (It’s paired with number 22.) During her Beethoven cycle, Oppens plans to introduce new works by American composers commissioned for the occasion. “New York,” by Amnon Wolman, a Northwestern colleague who specializes in cybercomposition, is first. This 18-minute piece, written for two interactive Disklaviers–computer-controlled keyboards–takes advantage of Oppens’s expertise in intricately coordinated duo-piano playing. Oppens will follow a score by Wolman, varying the pace, volume, and pitch in tandem with patterns the computer generates on the other Disklavier, whose memory bank of melodic fragments will be programmed by Oppens. In effect, she’ll be partnered by a mechanical keyboardist that can improvise within a set of rules (algorithms, actually) established by Wolman. This is one performance that should have a surprise or two in store for the pianist as well as the audience. Saturday, 7:30 PM, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 1977 South Campus Dr., Evanston; 847-491-5441.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ursula Oppens photo.