Ursula Oppens used to be a very easy pianist to pigeonhole. Give her impossibly complex new scores and she made good musical sense of them, pulling them off with power and panache. Elliott Carter’s horrendously difficult Piano Concerto had seemed an incomprehensible thicket until Oppens began bringing the house down with it. She also caused a sensation with more accessible music, such as Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” a series of virtuoso postmodern variations on a Chilean folk song.
Composers, especially American composers, loved her, and they still do.
But the modern pigeonhole was never a very close fit, and it is even less so now. When Oppens, 51, appears in recital this week at Irvine Barclay Theatre and at Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, she will offer what is really more typical of her: an eclectic program that plays Schubert and Stravinsky off each other, and both of them off modern American and Japanese music. It is a program designed to make uncommon connections between old and new.
Oppens is, in fact, surprising for the remarkable range of her musical interests and the connections she can make among them. With her, one thing simply and inevitably leads to another.
One such startling association, for instance, is that there are far fewer than six degrees of separation between Oppens and the soprano Kathleen Battle, with whom Oppens performed in recital last year. That collaboration raised more than a few eyebrows, but, as Oppens puts it, punctuated by the genial laugh that accompanies much of her conversation, “There were things we had in common.”
Such as broad musical tastes exemplified by a mutual friendship with jazz saxophonist James Carter. Carter appears with Battle on her new crossover jazz CD “So Many Stars,” and he played in the sextet of the venturesome jazz great Julius Hemphill, who died this year and who happened to be Oppens’ longtime companion. (En route to California, Oppens will premiere, with the Houston Symphony, Alvin Singleton’s concerto “BluesKonzert,” written for her in memory of Hemphill.)
Just how interested Oppens is in eclecticism can also be seen in her latest musical enthusiasm: teaching. She was recently tracked down by phone at Northwestern University, where she teaches part-time.
“I’m doing anything I want to do,” Oppens observes of her teaching responsibilities. That might mean teaching traditional graduate piano students, but it might also mean advising a doctoral candidate on Cornelius Cardew, the British composer who, in the ‘60s, founded the anarchic Scratch Orchestra made up of performers with little or no instrumental mastery.
As a professor and a performer, Oppens always returns to the composers. “In a way I’m just teaching my life,” Oppens says. “I’m giving an experimental course [where] each student has to play a work of a composer who will show up in class and discuss the music. A score is just symbols, and the score only exists in the imagination. So a performer must learn how to take advantage of the horse’s mouth. I’m really teaching students to take responsibility for reading a score.
“I’ve [always] wanted to get as close to composers as I could. And it’s fun to go from this complete lack of understanding that I have when I first see music that has never been performed and try to make sense of it, and then have the guidance of the composer.”
Oppens’ involvement with music of many kinds, with composers living and dead, has always been in her background, but it required a certain amount of rebellion to learn how to take advantage of it.
“My parents are both musicians,” she explains, “and my mother [a pianist] studied with [composer Anton] Webern. But as immigrants who came to this country in 1938, they felt that they were leaving the land of culture to come to some unknown land, and that probably had a lot to do with my wanting to feel I was in the right country.”
Her parents, she says, had a complex attitude toward the old and the new, and her own thinking, though it took her awhile to understand it, is grounded in that attitude as well.
On the one hand there was the Webern influence, Webern being one of the most modern musical thinkers of his time. But, as Oppens notes, “the main thing was that Webern was in fact part of a great tradition. He wrote music that sounded very different but in other ways was very connected.”
Oppens’ own training, which began with her mother, was in the firm Germanic tradition. “I didn’t start with more contemporary music until quite late,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I went to Harvard that I played my first Stravinsky. Boulez was there and that blew my mind. And I started playing music of my friends.”
But she didn’t really commit to the contemporary until a few years later, after doing graduate work at Juilliard, winning first prize in the Busoni International Piano Competition in 1969, and making her Carnegie Hall debut. Oppens realized she simply wasn’t ready for a solo career, especially for the grueling, lonely travel. “I didn’t really know what I was doing yet,” she says.
Instead, in 1971, Oppens co-founded the contemporary music ensemble Speculum Musicae and began working closely with composers. In those days, pianists still had to make a decision between the standard repertory and new music. “Somehow our option seemed the more thrilling one,” she says.
Which doesn’t mean that Oppens never looked back. She didn’t stop playing Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms; she just rarely played them in public. But today Oppens finds that times have changed and, in part, although she doesn’t say so, through her example.
“Most people think it’s really unlikely that a person can survive on a very limited repertoire anymore,” she says. “Take the [career] collapse of someone like Van [Cliburn]. I think it had to do with his playing too few pieces.”
Another significant influence in her life, Oppens says, is performing chamber music, which she does in small but intense doses--hence her tour accompanying Battle, whose programs revolved around 19th-Century opera and song. “The main thing with Kathy,” Oppens admits, “was that I was not as experienced in song repertoire and did feel the lack.”
By doing such a wide range of music, Oppens has also found there is little chance of the standard works getting stale. This season she will be performing Beethoven and Brahms concertos with a number of orchestras, something that, if she had followed a typical solo career, she would probably be sick to death of by now.
“But I’m not tired of Beethoven and Brahms at all,” she says. “It’s not as though I’ve played them hundreds of times. I’ve played the Carter concerto more.”
Oppens also maintains a collaboration with Rzewski, the pianist, composer and improviser whose music she has long championed and who, she says, introduced her to improvisation.
“I think the separation of improvisation from classical performers is a mistake,” she says. “I do some now and I think it is very important and very exciting, but it came very late in the process. If we don’t pay attention to improvisation, we don’t understand the music. After all, Mozart and Beethoven were great improvisers.”
It is all this experience with music new and old that Oppens brings to making her solo programs. But can a pianist actually have too rich a musical bank account? How does she even begin in making a program like the one she will be playing in Irvine and at UCLA?
“The pieces wander in the back of my mind for a long time,” she explains. “I started out with the idea of doing Schubert and Stravinsky, and wanting to do each composer in a non-virtuoso mood and a virtuoso mood.”
That led her to choose Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy and Four Impromptus, and to Stravinsky’s Sonata and Four Etudes.
“Thinking of the contrast in each composer then somehow led me to Tobias Picker [Three Pieces] and Toru Takemitsu [“Les Yeux Clos II”]. It turns out that the middle Picker piece is a little bit like the Takemitsu, while the outer movements are small etudes. The programming was actually intuitive, since at the time I didn’t even realize how much the pieces have in common.”
And while connections keep getting made, Oppens particularly likes the element of surprise that only eclecticism can provide. “I think that what’s nice today for an audience,” she says, “is that you don’t know that the next piece you hear is going to be anything like the last piece you heard.”
URSULA OPPENS,in recital at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine, Oct. 10, 8 p.m., $15-$26.50, (714) 854-4646; and at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, Oct. 14, 8 p.m., $26.50. (310) 825-2101.