Two other major pianists played local recitals Wednesday night, but it scarcely mattered. A program by Ursula Oppens is a realm unto itself.
There aren't many artists who would devise the inspired survey of dance suites, tangos and waltzes with which she made the Schoenberg Institute at USC come alive. And there aren't many free spirits, even among the elite specialists of new music, who play--and speak--in a manner so appealingly unfettered. Brainy, though sometime slightly befuddled, Oppens remains the essence of engaging bonhomie.
Encompassing a broad view of dance modes through musical history, she began with an obeisance to Bach's: the Partita No. 5 in G, which she played loud and unadorned. Since this keyboard adventurer is not your ordinary note-perfect virtuosa, however, and since the reverberant Yamaha set the small room shaking, it was not her finest moment.
Still, one could hear a hint of the delight that lay ahead. A tango group, for example, that introduced a popsy-Weillian-jazzy piece by USC-trained Michael Sahl, "The Exiles' Cafe"; a real foot-stomper, Frederic Rzewski's "Steptango," nearly bursting her unsturdy sandals; a dazzlingly intricate "Blue Bamboula" by Charles Wuorinen; and, best of the lot, Conlon Nancarrow's "?Tango?," which ranged from whimsical pointillism to gentle anarchy to fervent rollicking.
If she indulged caprice throughout most of the first half of her agenda, Oppens turned decidedly rapt after intermission. With Schoenberg's Suite, Opus 25, she began on a course that was transporting. She conveyed all the sardonic passion and lushly romantic impulses of the work with rare vigor, rare clarity.
The pianist cast similar spells when she took up Ravel's "La Valse," and Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz." She played both with total absorption, a sensual avidity that locked a listener into this tumultuous experience.